During his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden discussed many of the pressing challenges facing the United States and the world—from conflict in Ukraine to critical infrastructure improvements to the cost of prescription drugs.
During his speech—which lasted just over an hour—President Biden highlighted a couple of key education and workforce priorities that related directly to the work of America Forward and the America Forward Coalition.
Mental Health and Trauma-Informed Care
As part of his address, the President announced a “Unity Agenda for the Nation,” including a focus on mental health, “especially among our children, whose lives and education have been turned upside down,” President Biden said. “The American Rescue Plan gave schools money to hire teachers and help students make up for lost learning. I urge every parent to make sure your school does just that. And we can all play a part—sign up to be a tutor or a mentor. Children were also struggling before the pandemic. Bullying, violence, trauma, and the harms of social media.”
Shortly before the State of the Union kicked off, the Biden Administration also released a related fact sheet that outlined the Unity Agenda in more detail. In that fact sheet, the Administration specifically called out the need for expanded early childhood and school-based intervention services and supports, as well as “a comprehensive strategy to support student wellness.”
Following the President’s speech, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tweeted: “To truly heal, learn, and grow together – we must address students’ social, emotional, and mental health needs. The pandemic caused significant problems, but we have the resources & strength to build back better & help our children grow.”
The intentional focus on students’ mental health and overall wellbeing highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to learning and development for all children and young people. As America Forward wrote in “Whole-Learner Education: A Policy Roadmap for Student Success,” “existing educational systems that prioritize narrow definitions of student success—tied almost exclusively to academic performance measured by high-stakes testing—do not reflect the prevailing scientific understanding of learning as a holistic, engaging endeavor.” Especially now, as students navigate the school year in a new environment, shaped by unprecedented learning disruptions alongside historic disparities in opportunities and access—all compounded by severe, pandemic-related trauma—it’s imperative that policymakers take whole-learner approaches to education that support the development of physical, social, cognitive, creative, and emotional skills for all students.
When discussing efforts to cut costs for families and advance economic opportunity and mobility, President Biden said his Administration would work to “cut the cost of child care. Many families pay up to $14,000 a year for child care per child. Middle-class and working families shouldn’t have to pay more than 7% of their income for care of young children. My plan will cut the cost in half for most families and help parents, including millions of women, who left the workforce during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford child care, to be able to get back to work. My plan doesn’t stop there. It also includes home and long-term care. More affordable housing. And Pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old.”
As Sarah Rittling, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund, said in response to the President’s address: “The president’s message tonight was clear: Congress should prioritize child care and early learning and send a bill lowering families costs to his desk for signature…It’s time we address America’s early learning crisis head on to ensure children have the opportunity to start kindergarten ready to learn, and parents know that they can contribute to our economic recovery without the added worry of whether they find quality, affordable care for their children.”
The focus on ensuring more accessible early education and care mirrors America Forward’s early education policy platform, which called for “ensuring that all eligible children, regardless of their or their family’s socio-economic or immigration status, have access to high-quality early learning programs,” and represents a critical piece of the effort to expand educational opportunity and create more equitable outcomes in the long term.
President Biden called on people across the country to play a role in healthy learning and development by signing “up to be a tutor or a mentor.” This priority was also reflected in a fact sheet released by his Administration, which said, “we need more caring adults taking on roles supporting students. The President is calling on Americans nationwide to take on roles as tutors and mentors to help our students recover. Those looking to return to the workforce, who are just out of school, or changing careers, should consider the rich, rewarding job opportunities in our schools and with our young people.”
In response to the President’s remarks, AnnMaura Connolly, President of Voices for National Service, said, “This is precisely the role AmeriCorps members currently fulfill in nearly 12,000 schools in systemically under-resourced communities across the country. Schools and districts are collaborating with AmeriCorps members to help address the impacts of the pandemic, from supporting physical health and safety, to building school communities, to supporting the students’ social, emotional, and academic development.”
“AmeriCorps programs including City Year, Reading Partners, College Possible, Notre Dame Mission Volunteers and so many others, have been in the schools, literally and virtually, since the start of the pandemic responding to the unprecedented needs of students, teachers, and administrators. The diverse Americans serving through AmeriCorps have already made an extraordinary difference – as teachers, schools, and students have grappled with the myriad challenges presented by the pandemic – and they are poised to do even more in the months and years ahead,” she said.
The President also called for “increas[ing] Pell Grants and increas[ing] our historic support of HBCUs, and invest[ing] in what Jill—our First Lady who teaches full-time—calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.”
Once again, the President’s words speak to the same key priorities outlined in America Forward’s higher education policy platform – breaking down barriers to higher education and creating more sustainable pathways to and through college, especially for “non-traditional” students and those from historically marginalized communities. They also highlight the critical role that organizations – including America Forward Coalition members such as uAspire, Peer Forward, College Advising Corps, College Forward, College Possible, Beyond12, American Student Assistance, and more – should play, in partnership with policymakers and institutions to actualize increased support for higher education.
America Forward was glad to see the President lift up so many critical priorities in his State of the Union address, signaling his Administration’s focus on making meaningful progress in support of students, families, workers, and communities across the country. America Forward Coalition organizations are already leading on this work in many places, and America Forward stands ready to work alongside policymakers to actualize the priorities the President laid out.
FACT SHEET: President Biden’s Economic Vision
FACT SHEET: President Biden on Rebuilding America’s Crumbling Infrastructure Over the Next Year
FACT SHEET: President Biden on Clean Energy Manufacturing that Cut Consumer Costs, Strengthen U.S. Energy Sector, and Create Good-Paying Jobs
FACT SHEET: President Biden’s Strategy to Address Our National Mental Health Crisis
FACT SHEET: President Biden’s Plan to Improve Safety and Quality of Care in the Nation’s Nursing Homes
FACT SHEET: President Biden’s Plan to Support Veterans and Address the Harmful Effects of Military Environmental Exposures
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