From NBC's Athena Jones
In a speech before a Latino group this morning, President Obama laid out what he called "America's education strategy," arguing that raising standards for students and teachers, increasing access to early childhood education, and making college more affordable were key to the country's long-term economic health.
On the campaign trail, the president frequently linked education to the nation's global competitiveness, a theme he has reprised since the election. "The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it's unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children--- and we can't afford to let it continue." Obama told a meeting of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "What's at stake is nothing less than the American dream."
The audience welcomed Obama with chants of "Si se puede" ("Yes we can") and interrupted his remarks frequently with cheers and applause.
Still, critics from industry to Capitol Hill have said the White House is trying to do too much at once and should keep the focus on the economy, rather than taking the more holistic approach Obama has touted. The president had an answer for those critics today.
"I know there are some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time," Obama said, before ticking off the great feats past presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy accomplished during difficult times. "We don't have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term."
Those long-term goals include lowering health-care costs and reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. When it comes to education, the president highlighted the $5 billion the stimulus package set aside to expand early childhood education and said states that develop "cutting-edge" plans to improve these programs would receive an Early Learning Challenge Grant. He called on states to modernize education standards with the help of data that measures what works, and also said excellent teachers should be rewarded and poor ones should be fired.
The president argued, as he often does, that politics and ideology have stood in the way of necessary education reform. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom," he said. "Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance. So what we get here in Washington is the same old debate about it's more money versus more reform, vouchers versus the status quo. There's been partisanship and petty bickering, but little recognition that we need to move beyond the worn fights of the 20th century if we're going to succeed in the 21st century."
It was noteworthy, however, that Obama repeatedly used some variation of the phrase "call on" as he laid out his goals for reform. For instance, he called on states to reform their charter rules and to raise education standards rather than requiring them to do so.
He also looked ahead to the upcoming debate coming on re-authorizing No Child Left Behind, saying he would make sure the legislation lived up to its name by ensuring that teachers and principals got the money they needed but that funding was tied to results.