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State of the Union Letter to President Obama

January 20, 2012

Dear President Obama:

As you are uniquely aware, our nation is facing one of the most critical junctures in its history. 

I, along with the over 3 million members of the National Education Association, look forward to hearing your State of the Union address next week, as it is an important opportunity for you to outline a vision for this country’s future.  Policymakers in Washington, DC and in many state capitols across the country are sharply divided, advancing starkly different visions of what path will pave the way to economic recovery, stability, and prosperity.  American middle class families, however, are not divided.  I believe they want you to outline a bold agenda that offers both hope and help – one that puts people back to work, helps the middle class get back on its feet, promotes educational opportunities for all students, and restores the fundamental fairness in our economic system that all Americans have a right to expect.

As I travel around the country, I hear heartbreaking stories in every community that show the deep pain and anger among the middle class.  Our members see first-hand every day the impact of poverty and unemployment on their students.  They see it in the growing numbers of students who come to school hungry and worry about how they will eat when school is not in session.  They see the increased numbers of children who need support from counselors because their parents have lost their jobs.  They see more and more students coming to school from homeless shelters.  And, perhaps most sadly, they see the students who have given up hope in a brighter future, who see no way out of the poverty and desperation through the good jobs or higher education opportunities prior generations took for granted. 

The heroism of public educators to help students cope with these harsh realities is profoundly moving.  The fate of students in the Chester-Upland school district in Pennsylvania is an alarming example that equal opportunity may be a mirage for many.  The district has insufficient revenue and state aid to keep schools open.  Rather than see students locked out of school with no opportunity to learn, Chester-Upland educators continue to show up for work with no promise of  pay because they know that their students deserve an education and that they deserve to be our first priority rather than victims of a dysfunctional political system.

I believe the State of the Union offers an important moment to stand up for middle class families struggling to hold on to what they have while the rich keep getting richer.  It is time to state clearly that we cannot continue to cater to Wall Street at the expense of Main Street and we cannot turn our backs on good, hard-working Americans who need a little help when times get tough.

Your recent speech in Osawatomie, Kansas reflects what I know so many educators and middle class families need and want to hear.  We hope the State of the Union will lay out such a bold vision, while also promoting specific initiatives designed to help the middle class.  For example, the proposals outlined below would make significant progress toward addressing the needs of millions of Americans, their families, and our communities:

  • Creating local jobs to address critical needs.  A local job creation program such as the Local Jobs for America Act introduced by Representative George Miller would fund critical jobs in education, law enforcement, homeland security and other areas.
  • Adopting an automatic FMAP trigger.  Establishing an automatic trigger for Medicaid FMAP increases based on unemployment rates is critical to provide states fiscal stability and ensure sufficient funding for education and other priorities in tightening state budgets.
  • Rewarding students who work their way through college.  We must increase access to federal student aid for working students.  This can be accomplished by expanding Pell work-study vouchers for second-year college students.  Providing this assistance in a student’s second year could serve as a strong incentive to complete a full load of credits in their first year.  And studies show that one year of college credit often serves as a “tipping point” for substantially higher earnings in the future.
  • Rebuilding and modernizing critical national infrastructure to promote strong economic activity.  We strongly support establishing a fund to modernize schools and other aging public facilities, as in the Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) Act introduced by Senator Brown and Representative DeLauro.  Such investments ensure students the modern learning environments needed to succeed while also creating thousands of jobs at the local level.
  • Expanding needs-based funding of vital public services that help working families retain jobs and find quality child care.  Medicaid, Head Start, Early Head Start, Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), and other programs help low-income parents afford the child care they need to hold steady jobs, and provide vulnerable children with quality early learning experiences they need to be successful in school.  Noted economists agree that investing in early childhood education is fiscally responsible because it yields a tremendous return on investment, ranging from $3 to $17 for every dollar invested.  Research demonstrates that high-quality early education programs help reduce the need for special education services and education remediation, lower juvenile justice rates, improve health outcomes, increase high school graduation and college matriculation rates, and increase self-sufficiency and productivity among families.
  • Helping families keep their homes and holding accountable those who caused the housing crisis.  Eight million Americans are under water on their mortgages.  Providing relief for them will not only help families who are struggling to make ends meet, it will also help school districts that will benefit from a strengthened community tax base.  Simply put, the more people who can keep their homes, the better it is for local communities.  Forty percent of all education funding is derived from local property taxes, which have taken an enormous hit.  Immediate help to homeowners, however, must not foreclose the ongoing efforts of many state Attorneys General to hold fully accountable those whose avarice over the last 10 to 15 years—in the form of predatory lending, arguably fraudulent mortgage transfer practices, and unchecked Wall Street mortgage speculation—caused this crisis and created heavy burdens for local communities and their school systems. 

The more than 3 million teachers and other educators of the National Education Association stand ready to work with you to move an agenda of action.  I join with them in wishing you well and pledging our support to work with you to place the American Dream within greater reach for every American. 

Dennis Van Roekel