President Clinton Discusses Education Issues with Mayors Conference

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 7, 1998


The East Room

3:10 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Mr. Mayor,Secretary Riley, thank you for your outstanding work. And I'd liketo thank Attorney General Reno and Secretary Slater, SecretaryHerman, Secretary Glickman for also coming, along with James LeeWitt, our FEMA Director. I'd like to thank Mickey Ibarra and LynnCutler for the work that they do and all the other members of theWhite House staff, and say a special word of welcome to SenatorKennedy and Congressman Martinez, about whom I'll say more in amoment.

I'm sorry if I cost Mayor Helmke any votes in theRepublican primary. (Laughter.) It is his great misfortune to havebeen my friend for a long time. But surely, whatever he lost he gotback by outing me as a law school truant today. (Laughter.) I hopehe has recovered all that lost ground. (Laughter.) Unfortunately,it's true. (Laughter.)

Because this is my only opportunity to appear before thepress today, before I get into my remarks about education I wouldlike to make a few important comments about the peace process in theMiddle East.

First, I think it's important in the temporaryfrustration of the moment not to forget what Israelis andPalestinians have accomplished in just the past few years: the peaceagreement signed here in September of 1993, based on the OsloAccords, the agreement over Hebron, continuing in very open dialogue,an unprecedented amount of security cooperation. What we are tryingto do now is simply to regain the momentum that has been lost in thepast few months -- not by imposing our ideas on anyone, because onlythe parties can make decisions that will affect the lives they haveto live, their security and their future.

What we're searching for is common ground to achievewhat Prime Minister Netanyahu asked us to pursue a year ago, thestart of accelerated permanent status negotiations. It's importantnot to forget that. We are not talking about a final agreementbetween the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we're talking aboutwhat kind of agreement can they make within the framework of theirprevious agreements that will get them into discussing all thedifficult issues that would allow them to wrap this up, hopefully ontime, by the end of May next year -- which was the timetableestablished in the Oslo Accords.

Secretary Albright, I believe, made some real progressin London. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat wereseriously constructive. They discussed a set of ideas that webelieve are necessary to get into those final status talks.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked us to send ourSpecial Envoy, Dennis Ross, back to the region to pursue creativeways to make our ideas acceptable to both sides. He leaves later

today with my instruction to literally go the extra mile, to seizethis opportunity for peace, to launch the final status talks.

The Prime Minister and I agreed to try to do this a yearago, and we're going to do our best. I do not want to minimize thedifficulties. Both sides have to make very hard decisions if we'regoing to keep moving forward. But the prize is a just and lastingand secure peace, and the prize can be attained. We're going to doeverything we can to make it a reality.

Now, let me say what I said to you before when I wasasked to appear before this conference. I applaud the mayors forholding this meeting on education. You have done an enormous serviceto the country by being here and by putting this document out. Youcan lead the way to a revolution of high standards and highexpectations, of genuine accountability and real choice in education.And I believe you are determined to do so.

In the past few years, a lot has been done by dedicatedteachers, fine principals, supportive parents, other committedreformers, and our students. But all of us know we have a lot moreto do. We know that we have the world's best system of highereducation, and we've taken unprecedented steps to open the doors ofcollege to all Americans. We're moving forward on other levels, aswell.

Tuesday, the United States Senate passed 91 to 7 a billthat articulates the principles that I set out five years ago in myproposed G.I. Bill for America's Workers. I think all educators knowthat we have to create a system of lifetime learning in America.Everybody has got to be able to go back to school throughout theirlifetime. Indeed, one of the most important provisions in thebalanced budget was that which provided a HOPE Scholarship tax creditof $1,500 a year for first two years of college, and continuing taxcredits for other forms of education for people of any age when theyhave to go back to school.

What this G.I. Bill will do, this present legislationthat the Senate passed, is to untangle and streamline the currentlarge number of government programs on job training so that workerscan get a simple skill grant to choose the training they need. Thatis very important.

But everyone knows we still have a lot of work to do inour public schools. Our public schools, for generations, have taughtour children not only how to read and write, but what it means to bean American. And they have embodied the principle that everyoneought to have a fair and equal chance to live out their dreams. Weknow we have to strengthen them to do their job for the 21st century.As I said, there is a lot to be proud of. It's important to remember-- and I think the evidence will show -- that since the issuance ofthe National At Risk report in 1983, dedicated teachers, visionaryprincipals, committed students and involved parents have accomplisheda lot. But a lot needs to be done.

Our schools are still not giving our children,particularly our children who come in from the most difficultcircumstances that Mayor Helmke discussed, the best education in theworld. And, therefore, I really thank you for this action plan. Itreflects the lessons that have been learned in communities acrossAmerica. It reflects the goals I have sought to advance, thatSecretary Riley has worked his heart out on for more than five yearsnow.

And I think it's worth mentioning what they are. Everychild in every community must master the basics with nationalstandards in reading and math. Every child must have the chance tolearn in small classes, especially in the early grades. That's why Iproposed a national effort to hire 100,000 more teachers anddistribute them in a way that will enable us to get average classsize down to 18 in the first three grades. Every child should havemore public school choice and the opportunity to learn in a modern,safe, state-of-the-art school. No child in any community, in myopinion, should be passed from grade to grade, year after year,without mastering the material. I believe that those things areprinciples that if they were real in every school in America wouldstrengthen education dramatically.

I've often said, based on my own personal experience,that there's no education problem anywhere in America that hasn'tbeen solved by somebody somewhere in America. We have to do more,all of us, to shine a spotlight on reforms that work at the locallevel and then to encourage people to embrace other people's changes.

You know, our founding fathers set up the states aslaboratories of democracy. That was a phrase used by James Madisonand by other founders. And in so many ways, they are. I used to saywhen I was a governor I was much more proud of being the second stateto do something than to be the first state to do something, becauseif we were the second state to do something it meant we were payingattention to the laboratories and we weren't embarrassed to takesomebody else's good idea if it would help our people.

I think today, more than any other single group ofpeople, the mayors embody that spirit, and this report that SecretaryRiley is issuing today called, Turning Around Low Performing Schools,shows that, number one, it can be done, and shows what is done. Letme just show it to you. Dick just gave me a copy of it before I camein.

I hope this will be read by every mayor, every governor,every school superintendent in the entire United States of America.If nothing else, it will give people to know that no matter howdifficult their problems are things can get better, much better. AndI hope that others will be as unashamed as I was when I was agovernor to take other people's ideas. It's okay to give themcredit, but the main thing you need to do is to take them.

When parents and teachers take responsibility, askingmore of themselves, their children, and their leaders, you canreplace triumph -- you can replace failure with triumph. That's whatthis report shows. It shows that no school is a lost cause and thatno child is a lost cause.

A lot of you have been kind and generous and open-mindedenough basically to embrace and elevate the remarkable experimentlaunched by Mayor Daley in Chicago. They looked at their schools --they saw low test scores, high dropout rates, students literallyearning diplomas who couldn't read them. But instead of walkingaway, they went to work. Chicago ended social promotion, but Chicagoalso gave more after-school opportunities, had mandatory summerschool for children who did not pass from grade to grade, andwe now see, in addition to a lot of other changes, including far moreinvolvement by parents school by school -- we now see high standardsand uncompromising excellence coming back into the classrooms of thatcity.

And I have been in the Chicago schools, I believe threetimes in the last couple of years -- I was just there recently -- andit is truly amazing.

The thing that has moved me most, I think, was we wereat a school -- not the last time there, but the time before last --in which there were lots of parents there who had clearly rejectedthe notion that the worst thing for their child's self-esteem wasbeing forced to go to summer school or forced to repeat a grade.They understood that by the time they were 30 years old, if theycouldn't fill out a job application or read it in the first place,that would do far more damage to their self-esteem than having tospend a few more months learning. And that was a terrificachievement. And I think you deserve a great deal of credit for it.And I thank you for what you've done.

I believe we have to use standards in testing toidentify children who are failing to learn, to make sure they get theextra help they need. I believe that we have to say to every studentthat America cares about you, America believes in you whether youbelieve in yourself, or not, right now; but it is our fundamentalvalue in education that you must learn in order to be certified as alearner.

Let me also say, I think we have to say that it isabsolutely wrong to go about this business of saying you're going tosocial promotion, or have testing with standards, and then not dowhat it takes to bring the children up to speed. It would be wrongto do this without giving those after-school opportunities, withoutproviding those tutorial opportunities, without providing thosesummer school opportunities.

And I want to say -- I see Sandy Feldman here -- I wantto say that I think that the teachers of this country will lead theway on this if they believe that the kids are going to get thelong-term support they need to be held to the high standards. And Ithink the leaders of the AFT and the NEA feel that way and I thinklocal teachers in every school throughout this country feel that way.

No one wants to be a part of a failing enterprise,especially when the stakes are the highest they could possibly be--the future of our children. And if you look at these two things,if you say, okay, we know this can be done and everybody wants to doit, then the only remaining question is what do we have to do and whyaren't we doing it. And I see now more and more cities responding tothis call -- Boston, Cincinnati, Long Beach, Rochester, Washington,New York, Philadelphia, are all taking steps to end social promotion.I've been in many of the schools in cities that are here in thisaudience represented, and I know that there are people working totake the kind of responsibility for transforming their schools.

Now, if you're going to do that we have a responsibilityto help. As Paul said, there are some disputes about what the roleof the national government should be as opposed to the states asopposed to the local level. I think it's important to put on thetable first that the federal government's role in education hasalways been somewhat limited. It's less than a dime on the dollar ofthe education money. That means that we should focus on what works,on national priorities, and on helping schools that need the mosthelp because they have the least ability to provide for the needs oftheir people.

We also ought to focus on those that manifest a desireto do the right thing. If you know what works, you ought to rewardthat. That's why I have proposed a network of what we call EducationOpportunity Zones. Today, Senator Kennedy, Congressman Clay, andothers, and Mr. Martinez, thank you for being here, will introducelegislation to create these zones all across America.

They will target poor urban and rural communities, whereschools are often in crisis. They will spread reforms that work.You get the benefit of these zones if you're prepared to end socialpromotion, impose higher standards, recognize good schools, turnaround failing ones, give parents public school choice, rewardoutstanding teachers, help those who are having trouble, remove thosewho cannot make the grade, and make sure that all children get thehelp they need through after-school tutoring and summer school.

This bill should be supported by everyone in bothparties who cares about children and who cares about turning aroundfailing schools. It is the only way we can offer opportunity to, anddemand responsibility from, all the children in all of ourcommunities all across America.

I think one of the most interesting things -- I askedfor a report before I came out here about the cities that are workingin environments where they don't have the level of direct controlthat the mayor enjoys in Chicago, and I got a good report on whatsome of you are doing in various cities. And the only thing I wouldsay about that is that, either through a cooperative process or insome other way, in the end someone has to have the ability to make adecision and make it stick. Someone has to have the ability to makea decision. We don't make those decisions in Washington. We cancreate a framework; we can create opportunities; we can give money;but in the end, if a change has to be made, there has to be someonewho can make the change.

I've already said that I believe -- and I stronglybelieve -- there's enough evidence of what works that if we get thepeople together at the local level, you can create an environment inwhich that's happening. But the mayors, even if they don't directlycontrol the schools, have to be willing to speak up and say that thisis not being done if it's not being done. You are the only peoplewho can do that. You are still the single voice of your cities.

And I have now spent hours and hours and hours lookingat the Chicago experiment. I have spent no little amount of time onseveral other school systems, including some represented in thisroom, and I honestly believe that in the end, if no one can make adecision, and they can always bat authority back and forth, and noone can be held accountable, and no one's willing to be responsiblefor what doesn't work as well for what does, it's going to be verytough.

So we'll do our best to push this bill. I hope you'llhelp us pass it. I think it will really support what you're tryingto do. But you know as well as I do, that if we have a value of nosocial promotion, if we have a value that says ever child can learn,if we're trying to propose what works, in the end someone has to beable to take responsibility for making that decision.

Now, let me say that we've got a comprehensive educationagenda in the Congress, as all of you know. We're trying to get thefunds to aid for school construction and school repair. Many of ourcities have average age of their school buildings over 65 years.Many of our other cities have huge numbers of children going toschool in trailers every day. I hope we can pass the constructionbill. I hope we can pass the smaller classes.

We're doing our best to get full authorization forAmerica Reads, to continue our work to help you hook up all theclassrooms and libraries in the country to the Internet by the year2000, to continue our struggle for national standards, including thetests in reading and math at the fourth and eighth grade.

We have made some progress on some of these issues inCongress. We may have a chance to talk about that in the questionand answer period, but so far we have not been able to persuade theCongress to embrace the smaller class sizes, the modernized schools,the more teachers, the higher standards. We're going to keep workingto do that. I want to ask Congress to join with the mayors acrossparty lines to do what is right for our children in the 21st century.

You have set an example -- all of you, without regard toparty -- who have put your children first. And just remember this, Ihad a meeting with the head of the Federal Reserve Board, AlanGreenspan, a couple of days ago. And he said -- it was really

interesting -- he said, you know, it's hard to be sure abouteverything that's going on in this economy, but one thing isabsolutely clear: it is now being powered by ideas. We live in aneconomy of ideas. You have more wealth growth on less density ofphysical product than ever before in human history and the trend willcontinue unabated. That means all the opportunities of tomorrow arethose that are in the minds of our children waiting to be broughtout.

You recognize that and together we have to bring themout. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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