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Remarks by President at Opening of Education Roundtable

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The Briefing Room

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 31, 1998


Herndon Elementary School
Herndon, Virginia

11:40 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. First of all, let me thankall of you for that warm welcome and, Michele Freeman, thank you forwelcoming me to Herndon Elementary School. All of you know, betterthan I, that this is the beginning of a new school year where parentsand children are meeting their teachers for the first time and thereis excitement and anticipation of what everyone hopes will be a verysuccessful year for the children, and insofar as it is, it's a goodyear for America.

I have done everything I knew to do for the last sixyears to try to focus the attention of the American people on thewhole question of education, because I think it is one of the bigquestions which will determine the shape of our children's future andthe world in the 21st century.

If you think about the other major challenges we face asAmericans -- reforming Social Security and Medicare so that we babyboomers don't bankrupt the country when we retire -- (laughter) --providing quality affordable health care to all of our people,proving we can preserve and improve the environment and grow theeconomy, building one America across all the racial and religious andother lines that separate us, something I've been very involved in,in the last several weeks, as all of you know, trying to construct aworld free of terrorism and more full of peace and prosperity andsecurity and freedom -- every single one of those challenges dependsupon our ability to have educated citizens, not just educatedpresidents, not just educated secretaries of education -- butcitizens who can absorb complicated information and all these thingsthat are flying at them all the time and evaluate it and measure it,who can develop reasoned principles, passionate responses, to keepthe idea of America going into this new century.

That's why I wanted to come here today. Many of youknow that I am leaving, when I go back from you, I go back toWashington and then the First Lady and I are going to Russia and thento Ireland with a team of people to deal with the issues there, andI'd like to just say one word about it, because it's my only realopportunity to talk with you and through you, thanks to our friendsin the press here, to the American people. Because this trip is anexample of one of the most important lessons every child needs tolearn in America from a very early age. And that is, we are livingin a smaller and smaller world.

This global economy, the global society is real.Information, ideas, technology, money, people, can travel around theworld at speeds unheard of not very long ago. Our economies areincreasingly interconnected. Our securities are increasinglyinterconnected. I'm sure all of you have followed the events in theaftermath of the tragic bombing at our embassies in Africa, and youknow that there were far more Africans killed than Americans, eventhough America was the target. And you know that the personresponsible did not belong to any government, but had an independentterrorist network capable of hitting people and countries all aroundthe world.

So there's been a lot of good. We've benefitted a lotfrom this global society of ours. We have over 16 million new jobsin the last six years, and we're about to have our first balancedbudget surplus in 29 years. We have benefitted from the world of the21st century. But we have a lot of responsibilities. And the reasonI'm going to Russia is because we have learned the hard way thatproblems that develop beyond our borders sooner or later find theirway to our doorstep unless we help our friends and our neighbors todeal with them as quickly and promptly as possible.

Now, the Russian people are to be commended forembracing democracy and getting rid of the old communist system. Butthey're having some troubles today making the transition fromcommunism to a free market economy and from communism to a democraticsociety that has supports for people who are in trouble.

What I want to do is to go there and tell them that theeasy thing to do is not the right thing to do. The easy thing to dowould be to try to go back to the way they did it before, and it'snot possible; but that if they will stay on the path of reform, tostabilize their society and to strengthen their economy and to getgrowth back, then I believe America and the rest of the Westernnations with strong economies should help them, and indeed have anobligation to help them, and that it's in our interest to help them.(Applause.)

If you say why, let me just give you a couple ofreasons. First of all, Russia and the United States still have thebiggest nuclear arsenals in the world. And at a time when India andPakistan have tested nuclear weapons, we need to be moving the worldaway from nuclear war, not toward it. We have to have thecooperation and the partnership with Russia to do that. (Applause.)

We don't want terrorists to get a hold of weapons ofmass destruction. A weakened Russia, a weakened Russian economywould put enormous pressure on people who have those technologies andunderstandings to sell them. We don't want that to happen. We knowwe need Russia's partnership to solve problems in that part of theworld. If it hadn't been for Russia's partnership, we could not haveended the war in Bosnia, which all of you remember a couple of yearsago was threatening the entire civility of Europe. Next door inKosovo, there is a similar problem today; we've got to have Russia'spartnership to solve that. So if Russia will stay on the path ofreform, I believe America and the rest of the West must help them.

I'm also going to Ireland, which is the homeland of over40 million Americans. We trace our ancestry there. And they've beenworking a long time on a peace process in which we've been intimatelyinvolved and I'm going to do my best to advance that. I think wehave a good chance to do so. But I want you to understand that I dothese things because I think they are in America's interest. They'renot just the right things to do, they're not just nice things to havehappen.

But every child -- you look around this room and see howmany children are here who come from different cultures themselves,whose ancestors come from different countries themselves. There isno nation in the world better positioned than the United States to dowell in the 21st century, because we're a people from everywhere. Ifour values -- (applause) -- if our values and our ideals can spreadaround the world and we can create a peaceful, secure world. Sothat's what I'm trying to do.

But to get back to the main point, the ultimate nationalsecurity of any country rests in the strength of its own citizens.And for us, that means we have got to prove that no matter howdiverse we are, we can still offer a world-class education to everysingle American child. (Applause.)

I'm sure all of you know this, but virtually every onein the world believes that America has the finest system of highereducation anywhere. We are flooded every year with students andgraduate students coming from every other country in the world to ourcolleges and universities because they think they're the best in theworld and they have made us very strong. But we now know that in theworld we're living in, it's not enough just to educate half thepeople very well through university; you must educate 100 percent ofthe people very well in elementary and secondary schools.(Applause.)

We know we've got a lot of challenges. Our kids comefrom different places. A lot of them have different cultures, theyhave different learning patterns, they speak different languages astheir native language. A lot of them are poor. A lot of them livein neighborhoods that are difficult. And so this is a greatchallenge for us. But it is a worthy challenge. It's a worthychallenge for a great country to prove that we can take all thisdiversity, not just racial and ethnic and religious diversity, butdiversity of life circumstances, and still give every single child ashot at living his or her dream. That is what this is all about, andthat's why I'm here today.

This is just as much a part of our national security asthat trip I'm taking to Russia, and I want you to understand that Ibelieve that. (Applause.) So when we finish the roundtable, I wantto say a little about what we can do to help and what's going on inCongress and what will happen in Congress over the next month becauseit's very important. But the most important thing, as the Secretarysaid, is what's happening here. So I'd like to stop talking andstart listening now, and we'll do the roundtable and I think weshould start with Michele Freeman and let her talk about this schooland her experiences and her challenges and what she's doing about it.

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