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Biden Calls for Teacher Pay Raises, Expanded Pre-K in State of the Union

President Joe Biden included his administration’s K-12 education priorities in a State of the Union address focused on American resilience Thursday.

In a high-stakes appearance in the lead-up to the November presidential election, Biden echoed his past support for raising teacher pay and increasing access to early childhood education, and he highlighted his administration’s efforts to promote tutoring, summer learning, and career and technical education.

“To remain the strongest economy in the world we need the best education system in the world,” Biden said.

He pushed for high-quality tutoring and summer learning time and said he wants to “see to it that every child learns to read by 3rd grade.” Those efforts were key elements in a new K-12 education agenda the White House unveiled in January, seeking to build on pandemic recovery efforts.

That agenda includes plans to push states and districts to build high-dosage tutoring programs and confront spiking rates of chronic absenteeism, and to better monitor related efforts included in states’ federal accountability plans.

Promoting career readiness and early education

Biden’s call for career preparation, and opportunities for students to succeed without earning college degrees, comes at a time when such policies are developing bipartisan momentum.

“I’m also connecting businesses and high schools so students get hands-on experience and a path to a good-paying job whether or not they go to college,” Biden said.

His administration’s Unlocking Career Success initiative includes federal support for dual-enrollment and work-based learning programs in high schools. His 2024 budget proposal called for $200 million in grants to help promote such programs.

Biden also called on lawmakers Thursday to “give every child a good start by providing access to pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds,” but he did not detail a specific plan to pay for universal pre-kindergarten, which he has called for in the past and included in his Build Back Better proposal that never passed the Senate.

“Studies show that children who go to pre-school are nearly 50 percent more likely to finish high school and go on to earn a 2- or 4-year degree, no matter their background,” Biden said.

Touting student debt relief

Biden’s call for giving public school teachers a raise also included no specifics. It was included in a portion of the address focused on economic fairness, which included a push to raise taxes on the highest income earners to help cover the costs of domestic policy priorities.

Proposals are pending in Congress to establish $60,000 as a minimum salary for teachers.

Touting his administration’s efforts to address student debt, Biden pointed to Keenan Jones, a middle school teacher from Plymouth, Minn., who sat with first lady Jill Biden during the speech. Jones’ student debt was forgiven as part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which eliminates debts for qualifying government and non-profit employees, including teachers, after they make 10 years of payments.

“He’s educated hundreds of students so they can go to college. Now he can help his own daughter pay for college,” Biden said of Jones.

In 2021, Biden administration moved to fix the program, which has been around since 2007, after complaints that it’ was confusing and complicated, and a poorly communicated application process left the majority of qualified borrowers unable to pursue loan forgiveness. About 800,000 people have qualified for Public Service Loan Forgiveness since Biden took office, the White House said.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a broader student debt forgiveness plan last year on June 30, Biden has taken a more targeted approach, forgiving loans from qualifying borrowers through an income-based repayment plan.

Remarks on school violence, gun safety

Biden’s speech also included domestic priorities related to education, including a push for new gun laws he has frequently linked to concerns about school violence.

“I’m demanding a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines!” Biden said. “Pass universal background checks!”

He mentioned another guest who sat with the first lady: Jazmin Cazares, an activist who testified before Texas state lawmakers in favor of stronger gun laws after her younger sister, 9-year-old Jackie, was killed in a May 24, 2022 mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students, ages 9 to 11, died that day after an 18-year-old former student carried out an attack in two conjoined classrooms with an AR-15 rifle.

“Soon after it happened, Jill and I went to Uvalde and spent hours with the families,” Biden said. “We heard their message, and so should everyone in this chamber, a constant refrain. They said, ‘do something.’”

In September, Biden created the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, fulfilling a longtime goal of school shooting survivors and families who’ve advocated for stricter gun laws and more federal research on firearms attacks. The office aims to help coordinate the administration’s violence-prevention efforts and elevate best practices.

A year earlier, Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, heralded as the most significant piece of gun legislation in decades. That law includes measures like additional background check requirements for teen gun buyers and $1 billion in additional funding for school safety and child well-being, and a boost in grants to help train new school counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

There have been 10 shootings in schools or on school grounds that resulted in injuries or deaths in 2024, according to an Education Week tracker that counts incidents that occur during school hours or school-sponsored activities.

An important role for top education official

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, named the designated survivor during the address, was not present alongside other cabinet secretaries in the U.S. Capitol. The designated survivor is an official within the presidential line of succession who is selected to stay in an undisclosed location in case disaster strikes.

Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, who delivered the Republican response, largely focused on issues including border security in a speech that did not mention education. She framed criticisms of Biden’s “reckless spending” as concerns about her children’s future.

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