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Remarks By The President At National Education Summit

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The Briefing Room

Office of the Press Secretary
(IBM Palisades Executive Conference Center, Palisades, New York)

For Immediate Release Friday, October 1, 1999


3:40 P.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, governors, education leaders, business leaders. I am delighted to be here. I thank my good friend, Governor Hunt, for his remarks. This year marks the 20-year anniversary from the time you and Secretary Riley and I started working together on education.

I want to thank Governor Thompson for his interest in this, and so many other issues. Tommy Thompson is the first governor who told me that he thought that he could really move, literally, every able-bodied welfare recipient in Wisconsin to work. And I think they've had a 91-percent drop in the rolls. He nearly got it done. Congratulations, that's an amazing achievement.

And I want to especially thank Lou Gerstner and all the business leaders here, because you kept the idea of the summit alive and understood the importance of consistent and systematic follow-up with the governors, with the educators. I am very grateful to you for doing this. Most people like you do a project like this for a year or two and then they forget it and go on to something else. And you haven't done it, and I'm very grateful.

And for all of you who were here three and a half years ago, who stayed involved in this, I thank you.

Governor Hunt -- I was watching him on the monitor outside -- talked about the issue and to the Nation At Risk report 16 years ago, the meeting we had 15 years ago. The first National Education Summit was in Charlottesville 10 years ago this week. And some of us were there then. President Bush, his Education Department, education leaders from around the country, we were all together. And we came together to embrace the concept and specifics of national education goals.

At the second summit, here in Palisades three and a half years ago, we supported the idea that every state should set standards. At this third summit I hope we will embrace with equal fervor the idea of accountability, for only by holding educators, schools, students and ourselves accountable for meeting the standards we have set will we reach the goals we seek.

We have made significant progress, particularly in the ideas governing the way we look at this. More and more we're leaving behind the old divisions between one side saying we need more money and the other side saying we shouldn't invest any more money in our public schools, it's hopeless. By and large, there is a new consensus for greater investment and greater accountability. Greater investment and higher standards and higher quality teachers to help students reach the standards; holding the schools accountable for the results -- that's the agenda of Achieve, the agenda of our administration, clearly the right agenda for the United States.

I think it is another mark of progress, and something that many of you in this room can feel profoundly both proud of and grateful for, that 10 full years after Charlottesville and now more than 16 years after the issuance of the Nation at Risk report, there is still a passionate sense of national urgency about school reform, and about lifting education standards. And there are people who get up every day full of energy about it -- not cynical, not skeptical, not jaded, not tired; still eager to learn. People in governors' offices, people in the schools of our country, business leaders, education leaders of all kind.

This is quite an astonishing thing. You cannot think of a single other issue that has had this long a life at this level of intense commitment. And I think it is a tribute to the love of the American people for their children, a tribute to the understanding of the American people of the importance of education in the global economy, and a sense that we know that we have both the largest and the most diverse student population in our history.

But if you just think about how people get tired of political issues, how everybody is supposed to want to read something new in the paper or seeing something new on the evening news, month in and month out; and you think about how long ago it was when Governor Caperton there decided to make all of his elementary students computer literate; how long Governor Engler has been in office; how long ago it was that Secretary Riley and Governor Hunt and I started fooling with all this -- and the country is as hot to do the right thing, to improve the education of our children today as it was the day after the Nation At Risk report was issued. And that's a great source of comfort to me, and reassurance. And the business leaders, the educators and the political leaders here in this room, and like-minded people throughout this country deserve a lot of credit for that.

When I came to Washington six and a half years ago, all of you know that the number one problem I had to deal with was the deficit -- because we quadrupled the debt in four years, interest rates were high, the economy was stagnant. We had to cut hundreds of programs, and we were determined to try to do it in a way that would increase our investment, not decrease our investment in education at the national level, and to do it in a way that, spearheaded by Secretary Riley, to give you more flexibility, but also to focus on the pressure points of reform that would likely give us the greatest returns.

I am very grateful that we have seen our deficit of $290 billion turn into a surplus of $115 billion. This year we'll have the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years. And today we learned we have the lowest rate of poverty in America in 20 years. I am very grateful for that. But I'm also grateful that during this period we were able to nearly double the federal investment in education, to help you provide your children and your schools with more of the tools they need. We've increased early childhood investment through Head Start. We've opened the doors of college wide by basically modeling a national version of Georgia's HOPE Scholarship and providing tax credits for beyond the first two years of high school.

We have increased Pell Grants and established education IRAs. We've begun to organize an army of tutors. We now have a thousand colleges and universities, I believe in every state in the country, involving themselves in America Reads, to try to make sure all eight-year olds can read when they finish the third grade.

We've made an enormous amount of progress, and a lot of you have been active on this, in hooking up every school and library in the country to the Internet and with the e-rate making sure that the poorest schools can afford to participate in the information superhighway.

Last fall we fought for and won a big bipartisan consensus to make a down payment of 30,000 teachers, on getting 100,000 more teachers out in the country to lower class sizes in the early grades. And we have supported a hugh increase in the number of charter schools in America. When I became President in January of '93 there was only one charter school in the whole country, in the state of Minnesota. There are now 1,300.

We're in New York -- the New York legislature, I think, just authorized the establishment of the first charter schools here. In California, they just took the cap off the number of charter schools that they could have. We still have a lot of interest in magnet schools and other public school choice initiatives along with the other debates on this subject. But I think that we are well on our way to having 3,000 charter schools in the United States by next year, which is the goal that I set for our administration when we started down this path six years ago.

Now, in addition to what we've done, what's more important is what you've done and what the country's done. We have made truly remarkable progress in the standards movement, thanks in no small measure to the leadership of governors and those of you who gathered here three and a half years ago. Our Goals 2000 legislation and the reforms in Title I we made have supported that. Today, almost every state has standards for what children should know in English, math, science, history, social studies. Next year, virtually every state will be testing students to see if they're meeting the standards.

Now, that is all very good news. My friend, Hugh Price, who is sitting back there to my left, leader of the Urban League, recently observed that people didn't talk much about standards and test scores 50 years ago because the output of the schools -- whether it was good, bad or indifferent -- more or less matched with the demands of a blue collar economy that needed strong backs more than well-developed minds. The problem now is that the economy has changed much faster than the schools.

People used to say, you know, the schools just aren't what they used to be. The problem may be that too many of our schools are too much like they used to be, but the world the children move out into is not at all as it used to be. And that, of course, is what a lot of you are trying to help to change.

Now, as we move into this period of not only having standards, but having accountability -- that is consequences for the failure to meet them -- there will be people who will, first of all, be elated at the evidence of improvement, which you can see all over the country where such things have been done from California to Houston to Chicago to Dade County to many other places in the country. Then there will be those who will want to shrink back because they fear the adverse consequences of failure and many people really don't believe all kids can learn. I think it would be a mistake to give into those fears.

And one of the things that I would hope will come out of this summit, Lou, is that all of you, in encouraging accountability -- which is, I know, something you believe in -- ask people not to be afraid when there are consequences.

I just saw the results in New York City, where the first group of children have gone -- didn't score at the appropriate level. They went to summer school; many that went to summer school are being promoted -- but a few that went to summer school aren't, and all the ones that refused to go aren't.

And there may be some mistakes made. But as long as we send the message to these kids that we're doing this for you, this doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, but we'll be hurting you worse if we tell you you're learning something when you're not -- we'll be basically participating in a fraud which, ultimately, will cost you more personally, psychically and, of course, eventually financially, than any pain that comes in the moment.

But in order to do this, this whole issue will have to be really taken out of and kept out of the closet. Governors will have to look dead in the eye of some child that was held back and say, that's okay, you can do it, and lift them up. We won't have to pretend that there will never be a moment of pain for anybody in any of this.

And, similarly, business people and governors will have to know that we have done everything we absolutely can to give every kid we can the chance not to be taken down by the system. It's one of the things that I liked about Chicago, where the summer school now for the children that don't make the grade is now the sixth biggest school district in the entire United States of America -- the Chicago summer school, the sixth biggest school district in America. Why? Because they don't want to brand the kids as failures when the system didn't do for them what it should have.

And Secretary Riley and I have met with parents whose children have been through the system there, including parents of children who were held back and had to go to summer school. I have been into a poor neighborhood there where virtually all the kids had to go to summer school in a couple of the classes. And because they believed the system is honest, and because they believe that the purpose of what is being done is not for some politician or educator to look tough or run up numbers in the polls or, say, have some easy sloganeering answer, but the purpose is to make sure these kids learn what they need to learn to have good lives, they support it. They support the standards; they support the mandatory summer schools; they support what's being done in the after-school programs.

And it will happen everywhere in America. But we all have to commit the truth about this. And we can't pretend there will never be any painful consequences. But where there are painful consequences, all the governors can do a world of good by going into those schools and saying, I'm doing this because I want you to have a good life; I'm doing this because it's not too late for you. This is just the beginning of your life. I'm doing this because your teachers and your principals and your parents and the business leaders in this community, we care about your future and we're going to make this work. And I hope we can do that.

Let me just say very quickly, I think we have to have these basic standards in every state and we have to make it possible, as Achieve has recommended, not only know whether the standards are being met, but to give the parents some comparative information about how children in other states and other nations are doing. I think we have to recommit ourselves to extra support.

And Congress, when I sent this Education Accountability Act to Congress, saying that school districts accepting federal money must ensure that teachers know the subject they're teaching, have reasonable discipline codes, empower parents with report cares, have a strategy -- and I think this is very important -- to turn around failing schools or close them down and, finally, a strategy to end social promotion that empowers children who aren't making the grade through the after-school programs, the summer school programs, and all the rest.

Now, we're having a big argument in Washington on the budget today. I don't want to get into a partisan rerun of that, but let me just say this. We can have the kind of budget we need that will help you to do what you need to do without -- and we can meet the budget targets without coming up short in education, whether it's for Head Start, or more teachers, or the initiative to help states build and modernize 6,000 new schools, or the America Reads program, or this Gear Up program -- all of which Congress supported last year, by the way -- to help mentor kids that are in trouble in junior high school, to try to get them into college by getting them over that rough patch. So I hope we can get that done.

I also wanted to say, emphasize something that I think is very important. Our budget would provide $200 million to help you turn around low-performing schools. I believe that it is not enough to say, no social promotion, strict accountability, and even summer school and after-school programs for kids, unless there is a strategy to turn around the low-performing schools. And I know that in North Carolina, and in several other places where this has been done -- I mentioned them earlier; Houston, Dade County, Chicago, and there are other places -- but there is evidence now -- we don't have to question this either -- there is a lot of evidence that these low-performing schools can be turned around.

I went to an elementary school in Chicago, in the Robert Taylor Housing Project, where the reading scores had tripled and the math scores had doubled in two years. Were they on a low base? Yes. Were they where they ought to be? No. But does it prove you can turn things around, even in the most adverse circumstances? Absolutely. So I think that if we're going to have genuine accountability for standards, it is important that we have something to turn the schools around.

And, again, I say -- a lot of people in Congress don't want to adopt this accountability standard for federal funds because they say that we shouldn't impose that on you. But I think all of you know that the five elements in the federal bill were basically ideas we got straight out of local school districts and states. They weren't something that Dick Riley cooked up. It's something that the Education Department developed based on the proven experience and results of local school districts and states.

Finally, let me just give you something to feel good about again, at the end. In 1996, there were only 14 states with measurable standards. Today there are 50. That's the good news. Here's why you ought to focus on accountability. In 1996, there were only 11 states with systems that identify and sanction low-performing schools. Today there are only 16. This is the hard part.

But, again, I say, we've got to give the schools the tools they need to do the job. And the federal government has an important role to play. We don't provide an enormous amount of the total funds for school, but that amount was slipping for a while and we got it going back up now. And I feel very strongly, as the Secretary of Education, that with the largest student population in history, and with all this educational evidence about the benefits of smaller classes, and with the imperative of ending the practice of social promotion, finishing the work of 100,000 teachers, helping you to build or remodel 6,000 schools so they'll be modern, and doing these other things are quite important.

Now, let me just make one other point. I'm encouraged by the movement to standards in the three and a half years since you had your last summit here, and you should be, too. That's a rather astonishing move. And it shows what can happen if you meet in an environment where you've got business and education and the political leadership working together, and Republicans and Democrats leave the party labels at the door, and everybody just works on what's good for the kids.

But this is the hard part. It's not an accident that we've gone from 16 to 50 standards and 11 to 16 in genuine accountability. It's hard. But you also can take a lot of pride in the fact that you have evidence, even in big urban areas with a lot of trouble, where this has worked. And the consequences are good.

Now, last February when the governors were in the White House, I just noted that it took 100 years for laws mandating compulsory-free elementary education to spread from a few states to the whole nation. When it comes to this accountability agenda, will we follow the model of the last three and a half years with standards, and go from 16 to 50 in a hurry, or will we go back to the model of the earlier time? I think all of you know what we ought to do.

And I will say again, I think the fact that we have the largest number of children in our public schools in history, I think the fact that they are more diverse than ever before in terms of their backgrounds and their languages is a godsend for us for the 21st century in a global society -- if, but only if, we prove not only that they can all learn, but that we can teach them all. We know they can all learn from -- you can do a brain scan and determine that. That's always been -- that's the wrong question. The question is, can we teach them all, and are we prepared to do it, and are we prepared to have constructive compassion for their present difficulties by having genuine accountability and also heartfelt support.

The reason that there is still so much enthusiasm for all this after -- 10 years after the Charlottesville Summit, 16 years after the Nation at Risk, 20 or 30 years after all the Southerners figured out that it's the only way to lift our states out of the dirt -- is that everybody knows that deep down inside it's still the most important public work.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 4:10 P.M. EDT

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