From NBC's Athena Jones
Amid news that the nation's jobless rate has fallen to its lowest level since April 2009, President Obama today traveled to Florida to applaud the economy's progress and push for investments in education to ensure future growth.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.9% in February and the economy added 192,000 jobs, led by gains in manufacturing, construction, health care, and business services. The president highlighted the 222,000 private sector jobs added during the month -- signaling 12-straight months of private sector job growth. He also touted steps his own administration had taken -- working with Republicans -- to help accelerate the recovery, like the deal reached in December that cut payroll taxes and allowed companies to expense 100% of capital investments.
"You're already seeing those steps make a difference," Obama said as he shared the jobs numbers with the crowd at Miami Central Senior High School. "Our economy has now added 1.5 million private sector jobs over the last year and that's progress, but we need to keep building on that momentum."
Even as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill struggle to reach an agreement on funding for the rest of this year, the president has argued the country has to invest in areas like infrastructure and innovation that will help keep the country competitive in the 21st century. Today he told the audience "our job is not just to cut" and said sacrificing a commitment to education would mean sacrificing the country's future.
Improving the nation's education system -- with special attention given to transforming failing schools -- is one of Obama's top agenda items. The school the president was visiting has boosted its performance dramatically with the help of a portion of $4.1 billion in "turnaround" funds provided by the Obama administration. The graduation rate at Miami Central has risen from 36% to 63% in the past five years, and student scores have risen 40 points in writing and 60 points in math. The president's budget for fiscal year 2012 -- which begins in October -- proposes an additional $600 million to continue so-called School Improvement Grants.
Obama told the assembled young people "you can't even think of dropping out," and said a good education would lead to a good job. Companies are looking to locate in places with strong infrastructure -- like high-speed rail and high-speed internet -- and a commitment to innovation, the president said.
"But most of all, the single-most important thing companies are looking for are highly skilled, highly educated workers," he said. "More than ever before companies hire where the talent is."
Obama plans to spend the month of March traveling around the country talking about the importance of improving America's schools.
The president was joined at the school by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), a move intended to show that education reform was not a partisan issue, but an economic one. Obama called Bush a "champion of education reform" and at one point joked of the other famous Bushes "apparently the rest of the family also did some work back in Washington back in the day."
Obama was set to attend two fundraisers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Miami, before heading back to Washington later tonight.