At his third State of the Union Address Tuesday night, the president challenged all states to ban children from dropping out of high school before they turn 18. "Tonight," Obama bellowed, "I am proposing that every state--every state--requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."
Obama wasn't proposing a new federal program, but his use of the bully pulpit to tell local jurisdictions how to run their school districts was enough to make some Republicans, already sensitive to the increasing role of the federal government in education over the past few years, bristle.
"That's none of his business!" said Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee while speaking to reporters after the speech. "He's not a principal! He's not a public school teacher! He's not a governor, he's not a mayor. These are matters for state and local government."
Standing in Statuary Hall outside the House chamber, Lee, a senator whose rise to prominence was propelled by the tea party, went on to say that there was plenty in Obama's speech that made him want to scream, but he held his tongue.
"I did not want to be Joe Wilson!" Lee said. Meanwhile, Joe Wilson, who shouted "You Lie!" during a presidential address in 2009, was standing directly behind him, about three feet away.
Regulations on school attendance varies from state to state. Twenty states currently meet Obama's standards by restricting students from dropping out before they turn 18-years-old. Some states allow students to drop out at 16 with parental permission and others require an agreement from the school to let them go. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 8.1 percent of students nationwide dropped out of high school in 2009.
Other Republicans in the crowded hall, fed up with Obama's calls for a more intrusive federal system, lambasted the president for even making the suggestion.
"What are you gonna do, give them the electric chair?" asked Arizona Republican Trent Franks. "It should be handled on the parental level."
Phil Gingrey, a Republican from Georgia, agreed, saying students should have the right to leave if they want to.
"To require them to stay in high school to age 18, those who have absolutely no intention of getting an education or value an education are disrupting the other kids in class. I think it's just a government misguided run amok quote honestly," Gingrey said.
There was, however, one Republican willing to stand up for Obama's call: High school dropout Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee.
Issa, who left high school when he was 17-years-old to join the Army, took Obama's call to mean that the federal government should look into ways to encourage states to raise their age limits on dropping out, and he's fully behind it.
"I agree with him," Issa said. "The truth is that maintaining students from dropping out until they're 18, and every possible inducement, rather than getting rid of them at the first possible moment because they become a 'pest,' because perhaps they're not performing well. That could make a real difference in the level of education people get. Do I promote it? Yes."
"Leave no child behind?" he said. "That has a familiar ring to me as a Republican."
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