State of the Union Speech Touches on DREAM Act, Dropout Laws and Job Training

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President Barack Obama delivered his third State of the Union speech last night, an hour-long oratory that focused mostly on success in foreign wars and a need for financial and business regulation at home. The president did refer to three issues of great interest to disadvantaged or troubled youth, and the systems and organizations that seek to help them.

Dropouts: The president issued a challenge to state legislatures that is much more involved than it sounds: “Tonight, I am proposing that every state - every state - requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.

Most Americans naturally assume that education ends at 18, the age at which the vast majority of students graduate. But in most states, students are only legally required to attend school every day through the age of 16.

There were only 14 states that legally required students to attend school until age 18 in the mid-2000s, according to information compiled by the National Council of State Legislatures. Since then, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Michigan have raised the dropout age to 18 and Colorado has raised its age to 17.

Raising the dropout age would, for better or worse, expose more students and parents to court involvement for chronic truancy. It would also potentially increase costs for local school districts, which would shoulder the burden of finding, recruiting back, and incorporating into classrooms older youths who have stopped attending school.

When Colorado raised its age in 2007, one high school principal voiced concern over this to NPR.

“The biggest problem is that we're going to be spending money taking kids to truancy court that we could be using to provide more interventions for them, more motivating programs for them. And that's what I find discouraging,”  said Jill Martin, principal of Thomas B. Doherty High School in Colorado Springs.

Immigration: The president pushed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act without ever specifically referencing it.

“Let's also remember that hundreds of thousands of talented, hardworking students in this country face another challenge: the fact that they aren't yet American citizens,” Obama said. “Many were brought here as small children, are American through and through, yet they live every day with the threat of deportation.”

The DREAM Act would address this by offering conditional residency to illegal immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as minors and either graduate from high school and then go on to college or enlist in the military.

Versions of the act have been kicked around the halls of Congress since 2001. It narrowly passed the Democrat-led House in December of 2010, but was buried by pending budget and tax issues and a pact by 42 Republican Senators to filibuster the act.

Last August, Obama announced that his administration would stop deportations of most illegal immigrant students.

Between his comments last night, and the recent promotion of Cecilia Muñoz to serve as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, it looks like Obama intends to make youth a focal point of the immigration reform debate during campaign season.

Both leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have recently said they would not sign a DREAM Act that connects residency to academics. Gingrich suggested he would be okay with a version that only addressed military service.

Employment: Obama brought attention an underreported aspect of the job quandary in America: the fact that certain sectors have scores of employment opportunities in jobs that not enough people are trained for.

He highlighted one company that had addressed the gap: Siemens, which opened a gas turbine factory in Charlotte, N.C. and formed a partnership with an area community college to train workers for it.

Some nonprofit advocates have been promoting such arrangements for years by pushing states to permit a corporate structure known as a low-profit limited liability corporation – or L3C. The structure is meant to maximize program-related investments (PRI), by foundations and other donors, that can be used to leverage other investors for a social good, such as job training.

In November, Reps. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) introduced legislation that could simplify the use of PRI to form L3C entities.