THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
(New Orleans, Louisiana)
|For Immediate Release|| ||July 20, 1998|
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
TO THE 75TH ANNUAL CONVENTION OF
THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
Ernest N. Morial Convention Center
New Orleans, Louisiana
11:30 A.M. CDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, ladies andgentlemen of the AFT, Senator Landrieu, Congressman Jefferson,Secretary Slater. Mayor Morial, thank you for hosting this finegroup of America's teachers in this wonderful city.
To President Sandy Feldman and Ed McElroy and yournewly elected executive VP Nat Lacour and all the officers andpeople who are here. Let me say, when Sandy was up here givingher introduction, my mind was racing back over lots of eventsgoing back to early 1992 when we first went to a school in NewYork together.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Cardozo.
THE PRESIDENT: Cardozo, that's right, you werethere, weren't you? (Applause.) Now, anytime I'm talking if Imention something that gives you an opportunity to flack for yourschool, you stand up and do it. (Laughter.) I won't beoffended. I think you ought to be proud of what you do and whereyou work and the children that you're trying to help to preparefor tomorrow. (Applause.)
And when you think about where we were then as anation and where we are now, I was so concerned because not onlywas the economy in the doldrums, but our society was becomingmore divided, the crime rates were going up, the welfare rollswere exploding, there were tensions among our people, people werelooking for racial or ethnic or religious or political reasons toblame other people for the general problems and challenges weshared as Americans.
One of the things that I always admired most aboutthe AFT was that I felt that you have always found the rightbalance between being passionately devoted to public educationand to the welfare and working conditions of teachers, anduncompromising -- uncompromising -- in your advocacy of highstandards and accountability and educational excellence for everysingle American child. (Applause.)
Shortly before I came out here, your officers toldme that Edie Shanker had decided to give the Medal of Freedomthat I awarded to Al to the AFT for safekeeping. I love that.For it was your legacy, your values that he worked so hard toserve. So you take good care of it. He earned it, and so didyou. (Applause.)
This is a remarkable time in our country's history,a time of prosperity and confidence and breathtaking change, ifyou think about where we are now compared to where we were on theday that I was fortunate enough to be inaugurated President. Idon't say that our administration is 100 percent responsible forall the good things that have happened. That would be foolish.
In a free society, the people deserve the lion's share of anychange that occurs.
But I will say this, we had new ideas and newpolicies. We said we would take this country in a new direction.And there were consequences to those decisions, just as therewill be consequences to the decisions of those who disagree withus if they hold sway.
And I think every single one of you should feel apersonal measure of pride if you helped Al Gore and me win thoseelections in '92 and '96 because of what has happened -- everysingle one of you. (Applause.)
Because when you hear these statistics -- I mean,think about this. Compared to 1992, we have 16 million new jobsand the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, the lowest crimerate in 25 years, the lowest percentage of our people on welfarein 29 years, the first balanced budget and surplus in 29 years,the lowest inflation in 32 years, the highest home ownership inthe history of the country, and the smallest national governmentin 35 years, and the biggest investment in education in ournation's history. I am proud of that, and you should be too.(Applause.)
Now, today I want to ask you to look ahead at wherewe are and what our challenges are. And I want to ask you tohelp me with a lesson plan for America's future. I know you'remildly acquainted with such things. (Laughter.) I also knowthat this union represents people who help you in schools who arenot teachers and I thank all of them, all the support people herewho are here. Thank you for your service. (Applause.)
We have to decide what to do with this moment. AndI want to talk about education and the role of some other issues.But let me just back up and say, there are three things I wantyou to think about. First of all, all these numbers andstatistics that I mentioned are very rewarding because theyrepresent real positive changes in real peoples' lives: incomesfor ordinary people are up; poverty is down, as Sandy said; 90percent of our kids are immunized; we've virtually opened thedoors of college to everyone who will work for it. I'm proud ofall that.
But you know and I know that we face some biglong-term challenges. And I'd just like to mention a couple ofthem because I want you to talk to your students and to theparents and to the people that you work with about them, becausepeople need to understand that just because times are good, itdoesn't mean we should all be relaxing -- except if you want togo out in the sun in New Orleans and relax, I'm for it.(Laughter.) But I don't want it to be a permanent condition forthe American people.
Because we have big challenges facing us if we'regoing to go into the 21st century with the American Dream alivefor everyone, with America coming together as a community acrossall of our differences, and with our country leading the worldfor peace and freedom and prosperity. What are they? Well, letme just mention a few of them.
Number one, we have to save Social Security andMedicare for the baby boom generation. (Applause.) And we haveto do it in a way that recognizes that they lift millions andmillions and millions of seniors out of poverty. But that aspresently constructed, it is not sustainable because -- and I'mthe oldest know this baby boomer, so I can say this -- when weretire, at present birth rates and present immigration rates andpresent retirement rates, there will only be about two peopleworking for every person drawing Social Security. So we have tomake some changes. If we make modest changes now, we can avoiddrastic changes later. We must do that and every American mustsupport it. And we must find an American, unified way to do it.
The second thing we have to do is to recognize -- asyou can see from this sweltering heat -- that the Vice Presidentis right: the climate of our country and our globe is changing.The globe is warming. (Applause.) And our principalcontribution to it, human beings everywhere, is that we'reputting too many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere --primarily because we insist on maintaining Industrial Agepatterns of energy use when all the technology availableindicates that you don't have to do that to grow an economy.
So we have got to take advantage of the fact thatour children are natural environmentalists -- to use them, toempower them, to help us all to find a way to save our planet, toimprove our environment, even as we grow the economy. I promiseyou it can be done, but we've got to get people to thinkdifferently. This is a huge education issue.
The third thing we have to do is to prove that wecan bring the benefits of this great economic recovery to allAmericans, not just to those who have it now -- in our innercities, in our rural areas, our farming areas, on our NativeAmerican reservations. (Applause.)
The fourth thing we have to do is to persuade theAmerican people that if we're going to lead the world for peaceand freedom and prosperity, we have to be far-sighted. We haveto pay our way in an interdependent world. That means we can'twalk away from our investment in the United Nations. We can'twalk away from our investment in the International Monetary Fund.(Applause.)
I was just home for the weekend, and I know what alot of folks at home think. They think, why does Bill Clintonwant to spend money on the International Monetary Fund, we've gotneeds here at home. I'll tell you why. Because unless we helpto reform and restore growth in the Asian countries, for example,they won't be able to buy our products and 30 percent of ourgrowth -- if you like these 16 million new jobs, if you like thislow unemployment, if you like the taxes that are flowing intolocal government for education because of the economy -- somebodyhas got to buy our stuff around the world and if they don't haveany money, they can't buy it. And if they don't have any money,the value of their currency goes down, so their products theysell here are cheaper. So our trade deficit goes up.
If you want us to grow in America, we have to growtogether with our friends and neighbors around the world. Wehave to be responsible partners, and we've got to teach peoplethat. (Applause.)
Just two other quick points. We've got to be ableto live together as one America across all the lines that divideus. (Applause.) Many of you teach in school districts wherethere are children from 20, 40, 60, 80, maybe even 100 differentracial and ethnic groups, speaking dozens of different languagesas their native tongues. This is a good thing for America in the21st century and a global economy, an Information Age.(Applause.)
If we can overcome the demons of racial and ethnicand religious hatred which are bedeviling the world in our time-- from Bosnia and Kosovo to Rwanda, to Northern Ireland, to theMiddle East, to the conflict between Greece and Turkey, to thedifficulties between India and Pakistan. And if you want yourcountry to lead the world away from all that, I can just saythis, in order for America to do good throughout the world wehave to be good at home. We have to be one America. (Applause.)
Finally, the last big challenge that I think we face-- big challenge for the 21st century -- is providing everysingle child with world-class excellence in education -- everychild, every child. (Applause.) No one anywhere in the worldquestions that we offer more rich, quality opportunities forpeople to go on to college than any other country in the world.We've worked very hard to open the doors of college to everybodywho will work for it. But no one who is honest would say wedon't have serious challenges in our elementary and secondaryeducation. There are all kinds of different arguments about,well, what caused it or what the problems are or what thesolutions are.
You and I, by and large, agree on the solutions.But the main thing we've got to agree on is that this is one ofthe five or six challenges that will shape the America ourchildren and grandchildren will live in in the 21st century. Ifyou do not want our country to continue to be divided along thelines of income, to continue to grow more unequal, if you don'twant the 21st century to see an America where there arefabulously wealthy, successful people living alongsidebreathtakingly poor people, isolated in areas where opportunitynever reaches -- we have to realize that if this is anInformation Age and if the economy is growing by ideas, then itis more important than ever before that educational excellence beuniversal. And we have to provide that. (Applause.)
Now, I also want to say a few words today about anissue that may seem somewhat mundane to people who've never beenin the classroom and faced it, but America has been thinkingabout it because of all the tragedies in all the schools in thelast year or so, and that is the whole issue of school safety andthe critical role of a safe classroom and a safe school and asafe schoolyard play in the work that teachers do. (Applause.)
Every day, you work hard to broaden young minds, tounlock their potential, to sharpen skills. You have faith in thepossibilities of our children. If you didn't, you wouldn't bedoing this, because just about every one of you could be makingmore money doing something else. (Applause.) If you weren'tdevoted to our children, you wouldn't be doing this. It keepsyou in front of a chalkboard or a keyboard; it keeps you up lateat night grading papers and making lesson plans.
We have tried to be a good partner with you, asSandy said. I have loved working with you to raise standards, toincrease accountability, to improve teaching, to give schools thetools and the flexibility they need to reach the nationaleducation goals, to try to help make sure all of our children canread and can log onto the Internet and can go on to college.
We now have, I think, a great challenge before us,because in spite of the fact that this agenda is clearly anintegral part of America's economic success over the next fewyears, believe it or not, there are people who don't want tocontinue it in Washington and some who downright are committed toundoing it. But I have put before the Congress an agenda tomodernize our schools, to reduce class size, to connect everyclassroom to the Internet, to end social promotion but providemore funding for after-school and summer school programs thatwork to give our children a chance-- (applause) -- to give moreschools who are in disadvantaged areas the funds and the supportthey need to adopt the kind of comprehensive approach thatChicago is pursuing with such success -- (applause) -- to givemore students in disadvantaged areas mentors and the certainty injunior high school or middle school that they can go on tocollege if they learn and become good citizens and succeed inschool, to provide more funds to put teachers into underservedareas, to do everything I can to help to provide 100,000 moremaster teachers so that we can do what needs to be done in everyschool building in the country, and to support your efforts toimprove teaching.
I salute Sandy Feldman's plan to improve teacherquality, and I want to support your efforts. I have alwaysbeen impressed, I will say again, that the AFT was never afraidto say that before a teacher is certified, it is reasonable tohave the demonstrated competence of the teacher. I have alwaysrespected that, and I thank you for that. (Applause.)
But I will also say that while I have stronglysupported the testing of teachers before they're certified, Ialso have strongly supported paying them once they are certifiedand strongly supported having master teachers in every schoolbuilding in America and doing the things that Sandy outlined inher proposal.
So, as teachers, you're stepping up to yourresponsibility. I have tried to preserve the gains of the lastfive and a half years and put forward an ambitious program forthe future. And we've had a lot of success working with Congressin a bipartisan way for education. In the balanced budget bill,as Sandy said, we got this huge increase in funding foreducation, and we got the HOPE Scholarship, we got morework-study positions, we got big increases in Pell grants.
We have, earlier than that, got a big improvement inthe student loan program to open the doors of college. We've got1,000 colleges now participating with their kids in the AmericaReads program, going into your schools. We've got AmeriCorpspeople, almost 100,000 young people have been in AmeriCorps --when I drove by a grade school this morning on the way here,there were the AmeriCorps volunteers out there with their kids,holding up signs, welcoming me to New Orleans. We have been ableto do those things by working together. (Applause.)
Now is the time for Congress to turn away fromsome of these recent committee votes where they say no to smallerclasses, no to modernized schools, no to AmeriCorps. Theyhaven't yet said yes to America Reads. I am pleased that we seemto be making some bipartisan progress with the proposals toprepare teachers for the classroom.
But I ask Congress to support all these proposals.They are not my ideas. They are the ideas of educators. Theyare the ideas that we know work. All of them came fromgrassroots America. I was in Philadelphia the other day wherethe average age of a school building is 65 years. A lot of thosebuildings are beautiful, but they need rehabilitating.
I was in Florida in a little town where there were17 -- count them, 17 -- trailers outside the major schoolbuilding because the school population had grown so much. If youwant smaller classes, they have to be held somewhere and therehave to be teachers to walk in the classroom. We have got to dothis. This is important. (Applause.)
So I ask you to redouble your efforts, to reach outto all members of Congress without regard to their party and say,look, if there's one thing in America -- even in Washington, D.C.-- we ought to be able to put beyond partisan politics, it shouldbe education of our children. Now, if you want to fight aboutwhether you believe in vouchers or not, fine, let's have anargument about it. I don't mind that. But while we're arguingabout it, don't forget this: over 90 percent of the people areout there in those public schools and these ideas are good ontheir own merit and they deserve to be implemented and passedwithout regard to party in Washington, D.C. (Applause.) We havethe money to do it, it is allocated, and we should do it.(Applause.)
Now, let me also say that you know, better thananybody, learning cannot occur unless our schools are safe andorderly places where teachers can teach and children can learn.(Applause.) Wherever there is chaos where there should be calm,wherever there is disorder where there should be discipline, makeno mistake about it, it's not just a threat to our classrooms andto your mission, it is a threat to the strength and vitality ofAmerica.
In a recent study 81 percent of teachers said theworst-behaved students absorb the most attention in school -- notthe struggling students, not the striving students, the worstbehaved. Seventy-one percent of all high school students saidthere were too many disruptive students in their own classes.And only 13 percent of public school students said theirclassmates were "very respectful" of teachers.
Now, teachers can't teach if they have to fight forrespect or fear for their safety. Students can't study if thereis disorder in a classroom. (Applause.) And the disruptionwon't change unless there are clear, strict standards forbehavior. You know better than anyone that we either havediscipline in a classroom or we have disorder -- and too oftendanger. Hard experience has taught us this lesson all too well.As a nation, therefore, we must recognize that giving you thetools to have a safe, orderly classroom is central to the missionof renewing America.
There is another lesson to be learned from all this.In this case, it is from the overall decline in crime. And letme back up and say one of the cruel ironies of these horriblekillings in all these states over the last year or so has beenthat they have occurred against the backdrop of a dramatic dropin crime and the first drop in juvenile crime in years and yearsand years. Crime is dropping around the country because we'regetting serious about community policing, effective punishment,and effective prevention. Crime is dropping because wholecommunities, like Boston, are taking responsibility for theirstreets and their neighborhoods and because government is givingthem the support they need.
I mention Boston because they went two years and afew weeks without a single, solitary child under the age of 18being killed with a gun. That's an amazing statistic.(Applause.)
Now, these things do not happen by accident. Theyhappen by design at the grassroots level, but people must havethe tools to do the job. That's the idea behind our efforts toput 100,000 police on the street. When I became President,violent crime had tripled in the last 30 years, and the number ofpolice officers had only increased by 10 percent. You didn'thave to be Einstein to figure out that was a mathematicalequation for disaster. And the police officers told us we canprevent crime if you give us enough police to walk the streets,to be on the blocks, to know the kids, to know the parents, toknow the store owners, to figure out what's going on. So that'swhat we did.
But if you look at what happened in community aftercommunity where the crime rate dropped, they first of all put inplace a system that said we are going to have respect for thelaw, and here's the system we're going to have to maximizerespect, hold people accountable who don't respect the law. Andguess what? More and more people started to follow the law inthe first place, to behave as responsible citizens, to walk awayfrom the prospect of criminal conduct.
That's what we've tried to do with school safety.We've worked hard to tighten security, to give you the tools todo that, to strengthen prevention, to toughen penalties. Weinitiated this nationwide policy of zero tolerance for guns inschools. In the '96-97 school year, this policy led to theexpulsion of about 6,100 law-breaking students. It obviouslyprevented countless acts of violence. Yet, as we have seen fromthe recent acts of violence, we have to do more.
When I was in Springfield, Oregon, I was so moved bywhat the parents of injured children said, the parents in somecases of children who were killed. The teachers who were theretalked about the necessity of doing more and developing the rightkinds of intervention strategies. This is terribly important.And one of the things I came here today to do is to say that inthe fall I will host the first ever White House Conference onSchool Safety, and I want you to be a part of that. (Applause.)
We want to bring together educators and lawenforcement officers and families whose lives have been touchedby these terrible tragedies to find new solutions to thisprofound challenge.
Again, I ask Congress also to be our partner. Andagain I say, this should not be a partisan issue. I haveproposed a juvenile crime bill to ban violent juveniles frombuying guns for life and to take other important steps to givecommunities much needed support. I've asked that in our balancedbudget $95 million be allocated to the prevention of juvenilecrime. (Applause.) I urge Congress to invest in prevention.
You know, when we talk -- those of us who have runfor office -- we all like to talk about punishment becauseeverybody has known someone who's been hurt, who's been a victimof crime, and because we are outraged when we see children havetheir lives cut short. And I would point out that in our '94Crime Bill we did more to stiffen punishment for crimes underfederal law than had ever been done. But you know and I knowthat we cannot jail our way out of this problem; we've got toprevent more of these kids from getting in trouble in the firstplace. (Applause.)
Again I say, this is not a Democratic or aRepublican issue. We should simply invest in prevention becausethe police officers tell us it works, because the teachers tellus it works, because the social workers tell us it works, becausethe religious leaders tell us it works, because the childrenthemselves tell us it works. We should be investing in a summerjobs program, in the summer school program, in the after-schoolprogram because it works. (Applause.)
We also know, by way of lessons, that the smallstuff matters, the basics matter. In most schools it's not thesensational acts of violence but smaller acts of aggression,threats, scuffles, constant back talk that take a terrible tollon the atmosphere of learning, on the morale of teachers, on theattitudes of other students. (Applause.) And that's why settingstrict standards and enforcing them can make a powerfuldifference all across America, as they are doing in many places.
And let me just give three or four examples: ourfirst effort has to be to get kids inside the schoolhouse doorsand keep them there during school hours. (Applause.) Truancy ismore than a warning sign; it is trouble -- a gateway to drugs,alcohol, gangs, and violence. Our children will either sit inclass or stand on the streets. They'll either learn fromteachers or learn from the gang leaders on the streets. It usedto be the rule that truancy laws were enforced, that local policeknew kids and brought them back to school. But in too manyplaces, that has long since ceased to be the case.
Thankfully, communities again are turning theirattention to the old-fashioned remedy of enforcing the truancylaws. In Milwaukee, officers can now stop students on thestreets during school hours. In Boston, where more than aquarter of the public school students were absent three weeks ormore this past school year, they now have a strict new promotionpolicy. If you don't attend, you don't advance. (Applause.)
Other cities are forming truancy task forces, aunited front of schools, social services, community police tokeep our children in school and out of trouble. This isimportant. A teacher's day must sometimes seem very long. Butwe know the school day lasts precious few hours and there's notime to waste.
The next thing I'd like to say is when the kids arethere they need to feel free, and they need to feel free ofdanger going to and from school. That's one of the ideas behindthis incredible wave of enthusiasm across the country for schooluniforms. When I spoke about school uniforms in my 1996 State ofthe Union address -- besides making half the kids in America madat me -- (laughter) -- it struck a lot of people as an idea longout of date. And it was just gathering steam in places like LongBeach, California.
But in the years since, I have been heartened by theflood of interest, from New York to Houston, from Dade County toChicago, school districts are adopting school uniform policies.And they're finding ways to do it in ways that give the childrenand the parents and the teachers all a say in how they do it andthat don't put poor kids at a disadvantage when they can't affordthe uniforms.
But students have told me -- I've talked to a lot ofstudents about this in schools that have uniform policies -- whenone student is no longer obsessed by another student's sneakersor designer jackets, and where students are focused not onappearances but on learning, crime and violence go down,attendance and learning go up. (Applause.) And I am proud ofthe support we have given to those of you who have done this.(Applause.)
The next thing I'd like to say -- and I know youbelieve this, because you applauded earlier when I mentioned it-- is that the responsibility that we adults have for our kidsdoesn't end when the last school bell rings. After school anawful lot of children's parents are still working and there'snobody home to either supervise them there, or know where theyare, or where they're going when they leave school. Well, a lotof our kids get in trouble after school and youth crime is at itspeak during the unsupervised hours of 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.That's why I have said that our schools should remain open, tobecome community learning centers where children are safe and canlearn and grow. (Applause.)
In this budget for 1999, for next year, I haveproposed a significant expansion in our investments for before-and after-school programs. And for the later hours when streetsbecome darker and more dangerous, I have often urged communitiesto install curfews, to follow the example of New Orleans, whereMayor Morial, who is here with us today, put in placecommunity-based curfews with very impressive results -- in nosmall measure because the children are also taken if they violatecurfew to somebody who can help them if they've got a problem,and support them and get them back on the right path. But theseare the things that we have to do if we expect you to have a safelearning environment.
I should also say that I think that the charactereducation programs that our Education Secretary Dick Riley hasdone so much to help implement across the country are a positiveforce for a more disciplined school environment where the littlenagging, terrible problems don't occur.
So we're going to have this conference in the fallon school violence. I want the AFT involved. I want theteachers who know what the problems are to participate. But Iwant to encourage everyplace to adopt anti-truancy efforts, toconsider school uniforms, to look at the curfew issue, to look atcharacter education programs, to look to a new approach torestoring discipline in our schools and order in our children'slives. We can do this. The three Rs of the AFT --responsibility, respect, results -- that's what school disciplineis all about. (Applause.)
In closing, let me say I am always struck by howevery challenge in American education has been solved by somebodysomewhere. Therefore, I am always frustrated that we have notyet found a way to make sure when somebody somewhere solves aproblem, we cannot model that and make sure it's solved byeverybody everywhere. That is one of the things that the AFT hasbeen devoted to -- finding what works, developing a systematicapproach, trying to get it done everywhere. And it's one thingAmerica needs desperately in this area of school discipline,school order, and school safety.
Again, I say I am very proud to be your partner, inbuilding a 21st century America that is leading the world topeace and freedom and prosperity -- an America in which everychild is a responsible citizen, with unparalleled opportunity, ina community that revels in its diversity, but is bound togetherin our wonderful ongoing effort to form a more perfect union.
You, the educators of our nation, are the architectsof that 21st century America. Build well.
Thank you very much, and God bless you. (Applause.)