Obama: Higher Education Standards Key to Keeping Country Competitive

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama promoted his costly education overhaul Tuesday, pressing methodically forward with stimulus and government reform plans in the midst of an imploding economy.

Schools across the nation have been struggling as millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and state and local governments have seen tax revenues tighten.

Obama did not propose new spending during the speech, although he already has taken steps on education. His $787 billion economic stimulus package provides $41 billion in grants to local school districts.

He also plans to send $79 billion in state fiscal relief to prevent cuts in state aid and another $21 billion for school modernization.

In his speech, the president issued a call for a new generation of teachers.

"America needs you," he said. "We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country."

Obama unveiled the first piece of his education plan to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce a day after he issued a stinging rebuke to his predecessor, former President George W. Bush.

At a White House ceremony on Monday, the new president signed an executive order to allow funding of broader research into stem cells -- the human embryonic material that holds the promise of breakthrough treatment of ailments ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer's to paralysis.

In doing so, Obama emphatically declared he was casting out policies that had, in his view, allowed politics to taint science.

The move won wide approval in the scientific community, where many researchers have complained they were hamstrung by Bush policies that grew out of his deeply conservative moral and political positions.

But critics and supporters alike remained jittery over the rocketing unemployment, the crumbling housing market and nagging fears that many of the country's biggest banks and financial houses were insolvent.

Increasingly in the air -- questions about why Obama was dealing with less-pressing policy issues as the economy continued its meltdown.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs responded: "Our economy is not likely to grow in the long term unless or until we deal with them."

In Monday's White House ceremony that opened stem cell research to greater federal funding, Obama coupled the directive with a presidential memorandum to promote what he called "the restoration of scientific integrity to government decision-making."

"Our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values," Obama declared as he signed documents changing U.S. science policy and removing what some researchers have said were shackles on their work.

In particularly pointed remarks, Obama said he would end "manipulation or coercion" of the scientific community when its findings are "inconvenient."

Bush had limited the use of taxpayer money allowed for stem cell research, saying it required the destruction of embryos and was therefore morally wrong.

Obama said that ban and Bush's dismissal of important evidence on climate change were over.
"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it's also about protecting free and open inquiry," he said. "It's about letting scientists like those who are here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient.

"It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."