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What To Expect From Obama Tonight On Education

President Obama speaks at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., on Jan. 9. Obama is promoting a plan to make publicly funded community college available to all students.
Mark Humphrey

On the education front, President Obama's State of the Union address is likely to focus on three big proposals:

First, the president wants to talk about the idea he floated last week of making community college tuition-free. This is new.

The plan would benefit about 9 million full- and part-time students and would cost the federal government about $60 billion over 10 years. According to the administration's numbers, that would account for three-fourths of the total cost. States and community colleges would come up with the rest.

Not surprisingly, GOP leaders in Congress have dismissed the idea.

Second, the president is expected to push for universal preschool for 4-year-olds, an idea he talked about a lot last year. Congress shot down the president's initial $75 billion proposal because it called for a 94-cent tax increase on cigarettes to pay for it. The president insists his effort would significantly boost what most states are already doing on their own: expanding preschool, especially for low-income children. Right now, only a third of all eligible 4-year-olds are in preschool.

Third, the president is likely to talk about revisiting the Bush-era law known as No Child Left Behind. Congress has not reauthorized the main federal education law since 2007. Experts give it about a 50-50 chance this year. Republicans see an opportunity to pull back and limit federal oversight of schools. Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, wants to revise NCLB but keep two key provisions: the annual testing of children in grades in 3-8 and once in high school, and targeted funding for the poorest-performing schools.

In addition to those main ideas, Obama is proposing something called the "Student Digital Privacy Act" to make sure that the information schools collect about kids is used only for educational purposes. It would prevent private companies that have contracts with schools from selling data they gain through those contracts. To date, 20 states have passed similar legislation and 75 companies have agreed to comply.

Overall, though, this year's State of the Union may sound a lot like his first: In 2009, Obama lamented, "Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for."

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