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Teachers press Obama to keep promises as spending cuts loom

U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUT
U.S. President Barack Obama gestures during remarks at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Lansdowne, Virginia, February 7, 2013. REUT

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The largest teachers union in the United States is telling President Barack Obama not to back down from promises he made in his January inauguration speech as the country prepares to begin a decade of billions of dollars in federal spending cuts.

Obama will give his annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, in which he will likely spell out practical steps for accomplishing goals he presented last month.

In a letter sent to Obama on Friday, the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, said the inaugural address laid out a "clear agenda - to support and lift up the hopes, dreams and rights of all Americans.

"In order for the economy to truly work for all Americans, we need to continue to pursue fiscal policies that promote fairness and prosperity, create jobs, make college affordable, and lift children out of poverty," Van Roekel wrote.

Specifically, the union suggested Obama find ways to support early childhood education, keep college affordable and help community colleges train students to meet the demands for certain skills.

But Van Roekel went further, asking Obama to renew his recent calls for stricter gun controls and for immigration reforms. He also voiced concerns that one in five U.S. children lives in poverty, and called for universal voter registration and measures meant to ensure access to the polls.

"Our members still see the impact of the troubled economy as their students continue to come to school hungry, sick or in need of counseling and other services," he wrote.

Most American students attend public schools - 90.1 percent in 2010 according to the National Center for Education Statistics - and Obama's Democratic party has long made education a central part of its platform and enjoyed the support of those who work in public schools.

This summer, both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden addressed the NEA national conference and Education Secretary Arne Duncan is in contact with NEA once a week. With 3.2 million members, it is one of the most powerful organized labor organizations in the country.

Still, many state officials are frustrated with the federal government for failing to renew the massive law known as No Child Left Behind, which expired four years ago. Schools have functioned under a patchwork of extensions and waivers to the law granted by the federal government, and turned more to competitive grants Obama began in 2009.

They are also worried that sequestration, or the automatic spending cuts intended to total $1.2 billion over 10 years, will hurt their budgets. In recent years, states cut funds for local governments while property taxes, the chief source of school revenues, have remained depressed. Federal funds provide about 10 percent of public school budgets.

"Our nation's schools are already being asked to do so much more with so much less," Van Roekel wrote.

Federal funds for disadvantaged students would be eliminated for more than 2,700 schools and the jobs of approximately 10,000 teachers and aides would be at risk under sequestration, the White House said on Friday.

Up to 7,200 special education teachers and aides would no longer receive federal funding and about 70,000 young children would be cut off from the Head Start programs that provide pre-school, nutrition and social services.

For nearly three years, Republican critics such as Rep. Paul Ryan, the recent vice-presidential candidate, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have suggested that teacher unions are responsible for troubles in public schools. Many, such as Sen. Rand Paul of Tennessee, advocate for a radical shift in paying for education, in which the government would give students "vouchers" to attend schools their families choose.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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