Few Education Mentions in Trump's First State of the Union

January 31, 2018

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy 

Last night, President Trump delivered (full prepared text) his first State of the Union address after one year in office. The speech focused primarily on the military, infrastructure, the economy including the recently passed changes to the tax code, and immigration. In reference to education, the speech included few mentions – one line each for vocational education and education savings.

These mentions did not include detailed policy proposals, but the lack of focus on education is a stark contrast to previous presidents’ State of the Union addresses, including both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, NCAN will continue to advocate for policies that support our students.

The State of the Union did reflect the national focus on immigration at this time, a conversation in which NCAN members have been actively involved. Trump called for a “fair compromise,” with support from both parties. He continued that the compromise would be one where, “nobody gets everything they want, but where our country gets the critical reforms it needs.”

He outlined four pillars for the plan – a citizenship path for Dreamers, funding for border security including a “wall,” elimination of the visa lottery program, and a reduction of family migration (also referred to as chain migration) to immediate family members only. Trump’s proposal for Dreamers would cover 1.8 million individuals – far more than the approximately 800,000 people covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) – but the additional expenditures on border security and deportations are unpopular with immigrant advocates as they could put Dreamer family members at risk. Further, the changes to the visa lottery program and family migration are a part of larger immigration reform that many advocates do not want to rush simply because the end of the DACA program needs to be addressed on a short timeline.

Picking up on the immigration theme in his only tweet responding to the State of the Union, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, tweeted that, “After a first year of tax cuts, reduced regulations, & conservative judges, I’m glad to hear the president’s optimism about tackling the tough issues ahead of us. With his leadership, we can strengthen our borders, address DACA, lower health care costs, & fight the opioid crisis.”

Alexander’s Democratic counterpart on the Senate HELP committee, ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) saw it differently. Murray, who is also the third-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, tweeted in response, “Instead of President Trump’s wall, we could invest $25 billion to combat the #opioid epidemic, improve our schools, and repair our infrastructure.”

Murray’s reference to schools was in contrast to Trump’s very limited focus on education. On higher education in particular, there were only two references. In the most relevant portion, Trump said, "we can lift our citizens from welfare to work, from dependence to independence, and from poverty to prosperity." He continued, "Let us invest in workforce development and job training. Let us open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential." The president offered no plan – general or specific – on how to achieve these goals or how the country would pay for new vocational schools. However, this line does match a building theme from this administration on career and technical education, apprenticeships, and other pathways into careers.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) is the chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. Her statement following the speech echoed the focus on career: “All education is career education, and I am proud to work with President Trump to provide Americans with the tools they need to land rewarding jobs and build a prosperous life.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos picked up on the pathways theme, tweeting that, “I look forward to working with @POTUS to ensure every American has access to the educational path they need to succeed in our 21st century economy.”

Neither leader added any details to what these pathways may entail. Foxx released her vision to reauthorize the Higher Education Act at the end of last year with the introduction of the PROSPER Act. NCAN will continue to watch related proposals to see how they will affect our students, advocating for Congress and the Trump Administration to focus on higher education and workforce development rather than workforce development in place of four-year higher education.

The second education mention came with the introduction of one of Trump’s guests, Corey Adams, a welder from Staub Manufacturing, who Trump called an “all-American worker.” The president said Adams and his wife, who just bought their first house, would use their tax savings toward their daughters’ education.

Democratic leaders from the House of Representatives picked up on the education theme in their State of the Union responses. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reacted to the vocational school proposal with the following tweet: "Build new vocational schools? With what? Your FY18 budget *cuts* these programs and career technician education.” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the ranking member on the House Education and Workforce Committee, issued a press release following the speech focused on students and workers, including a list of what he called the “Dirty Dozen” actions against students, labor, and healthcare by the Trump administration.

Overall, the priorities of the Trump Administration in the coming year will be more telling than the State of the Union speech. Will the White House follow the negotiating advice Trump outlined in his speech, making sacrifices to reach a compromise? Will there be a proposal to support vocational education, and will that be in addition to or to the detriment of more traditional education? NCAN will continue to advocate for our students as the answers to these questions become apparent.

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