Obama Says U.S. Strength Depends on Bolstering Education System

President Barack Obama said bolstering the education system is as crucial to the U.S. as keeping defense strong, saying “we won’t be able to project military strength or any other kind of strength” without an educated population.

“Over the last 10 years the defense budget was going up much more quickly than our education budget,” Obama said at a discussion with about 600 students, parents and teachers in Washington. “We are only going to be as strong as we are here at home.”

The president was speaking at a town hall-style event that is part of an administration campaign to make the case that improving the education system is vital to the nation’s future. Obama also is using the issue to counter Republican proposals to cut as much as $61 billion from this year’s budget, which Democrats say would slash education programs. The government is operating on temporary spending authority for fiscal 2011 as Democratic and Republican lawmakers negotiate a spending plan.

The question-and-answer session is scheduled for broadcast at 7 p.m. Washington time on Univision Communications Inc., a Spanish-language television network. With Obama scheduled to deliver an address on U.S. involvement in Libya at 7:30 p.m., the subject of national defense colored some of the questions and answers.

Asked to preview his speech on Libya, the president repeated his message that U.S. involvement in Libya “is going to be limited both in time and in scope.”

Focus on Hispanics

Today’s event at Bell Multicultural High School was focused on Hispanics, which the Census Bureau reports make up the biggest minority group in the nation, comprising 16 percent of the U.S. population. They are a key target for politicians in both political parties in the 2012 elections.

Hispanics are even more heavily represented in schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a March 25 conference call that there are almost 12 million Latino students in public elementary and secondary schools, making up 22 percent of all pre-K through 12 students in the nation.

Yet, Duncan said, only about half of Hispanic students earn their high school diploma on time and only one in eight have a bachelor’s degree.

Obama said he’s proposed putting more money in his fiscal 2012 budget proposal for early childhood education even as other federal programs are being frozen or cut.

Young Population

“The Latino community is a young population so there are a lot of young kids,” Obama said. When children “come to school prepared then they are more likely to stay on grade level than fall behind,” he said.

Obama said he still believes the Dream Act can be passed. The legislation, which would provide permanent residency to most college graduates and military veterans who arrived in the U.S. as children illegally, was passed in the House and was blocked in the Senate in December.

“We’ve got to keep the pressure up on Congress,” he said, urging Hispanics to contact members of Congress to contact their lawmakers to help get it passed. He said the immigration system is “broken right now” and he said there has to be “pathway to citizenship” to immigrants to the U.S. even while borders are being secured.

The president has called on Congress to overhaul the country’s signature education law, known as No Child Left Behind, before the start of the next school year. Duncan said the law is too punitive and it needs to be more flexible and reward success.

Obama proposed $77.4 billion in federal spending on education in his budget for the fiscal 2012, which starts Oct. 1. His proposal reduces higher education outlays by $10 billion while raising spending for kindergarten through high school education by 6.9 percent to $26.8 billion.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Washington at Kandersen7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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