[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1995, Book I)]
[March 14, 1995]
[Pages 343-350]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With the National PTA 
Legislative Conference
March 14, 1995

    The President. Thank you very much, Kathryn. Thank you, ladies and 
gentlemen. I am delighted to be here with you. More importantly, I am 
delighted to have you here with me. I need all the help I can get. 
[Laughter] I feel like reinforcements have just arrived.
    I want to say, too, a special word of thanks to the PTA for 
presenting Secretary Riley the PTA Child Advocacy Award tomorrow. He's 
here with me. And I think he's done a magnificent job. And I thank you 
for giving him that award.
    Such a beautiful sort of premature spring day outside. I almost feel 
that we should be having recess instead of class. [Laughter] But 
unfortunately, events compel us to have class, for we

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are in danger of forgetting some of our most fundamental lessons.
    I want to start by thanking a kindergarten class taught by Linda 
Eddington from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the wonderful letters they 
sent up here with her. I reviewed the letters. I had some favorites. 
Charlie Wheeler said, ``You are a good paper-writer, because you 
practice.'' My favorite letter, regrettably, was unsigned, otherwise I 
would be writing a letter back. It said, ``You're one of the best. I 
never have seen you, but I like your speeches.'' I am sending to the 
Congress today a proposal to lower the voting age to 5. [Laughter] We 
might get better results.
    I want to thank the PTA for now nearly 100 years of help to children 
and to parents and to schools. The PTA has meant a lot to me personally. 
I have been a member of the PTA--Hillary and I both were active when I 
was the Governor of Arkansas. Essie used to come sell me my membership 
every year. [Laughter] And I actually paid and actually--[laughter]. You 
know how Presidents never carry any money anywhere they go? I brought 
some money today, because I knew she was going to be here. [Laughter] I 
did. I also, besides being an active member of the PTA and spending a 
lot of time at Chelsea's school, had a chance to work with the PTA for a 
dozen years in my State and throughout the country as we worked to 
implement the recommendations of the ``Nation at Risk'' report, starting 
in '83. And then we worked up to the national education goals in '89. 
And then, of course, ultimately culminating in my service as President 
in the last 2 years.
    At a time when many of our most important citizenship organizations 
have been suffering and civic institutions generally are often in 
decline, the PTA has grown as parents have come back in droves to 
understanding that they had to do more to make their children's 
education work and that they had to be involved. PTA embodies the three 
ideas that I have talked about so much for the future--opportunity, 
responsibility, and community--what we call the New Covenant.
    This is a period of profound change in the life of America and in 
the lives of Americans. There are many things going on which are 
wonderful, exhilarating, exciting, and others which are profoundly 
troubling. The biggest challenges we face on the eve of this new century 
relate to our economic and social problems, which threaten the middle 
class economics of the American dream and the mainstream values of work 
and family and community. We see it everywhere in every community. About 
half of the American people are making the same or less money than they 
made 15 years ago. We have an enormous divide opening up within the 
great American middle class based largely on the level of education. And 
in spite of the fact that--and I'm very proud of the fact--that we've 
had an economic recovery that has produced the lowest rates of 
unemployment and inflation combined in 25 years and 6.1 million new 
jobs, a whole lot of Americans are still worried about losing theirs or 
losing the benefits associated with their job, their health care, their 
retirement, or never getting a raise. And in spite of the progress we 
are making on many fronts, there is still an awful lot of social turmoil 
in this country from drugs and violence and gangs and family breakdown. 
And these things are profoundly troubling to the American people.
    So we have a lot of good news and a lot of bad news. And a whole lot 
is happening. In 1993 we had the largest number of new businesses 
started in the United States in any single year in the history of the 
country. So we're all trying to work through this as a people, as we 
must. I believe our common mission must be to keep the American dream 
alive for all of our people as we move into the next century and to make 
sure our country is still the strongest force for peace and freedom and 
democracy in the world. To do that, we've got to have a strong economy. 
We've got to be able to grow the middle class and shrink the under 
class. We have to support all these wonderful entrepreneurial forces 
that are bubbling up in our society. We have to dramatically change the 
way Government works. But our goal must be always, always the same: to 
make sure that every American has the chance to live up to his or her 
God-given potential. And that is what the PTA is all about.
    Education has always been profoundly important in American life, 
from the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson talked about it a lot. But it 
has never been more important to the prosperity and, indeed, to the 
survival of the America we know and love than it is today, never.
    Now, as we move away from the cold war and the industrial age into 
the post-cold-war era and the information age where most wealth 
generation is based on knowledge and technology is changing things at a 
blinding pace, we know

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that there will be big changes and there must be in the role of 
Government. There's a huge debate going on here in Washington, which can 
be seen in almost every issue, about exactly what the role of the 
Government should be as we move toward the 21st century. On the one side 
is the largely rejected view that Washington still knows best about 
everything and that there is a one-size-fits-all big answer to every big 
problem in the country. On the other side is what you might call the 
Republican contract view, which is that the Government is the source of 
all the problems in the country, and if we just had no Government, we'd 
have no problems, and--unless something is going on at the State and 
local level that they don't agree with, in which case they want Federal 
action. But, basically, that's the argument stated in the most extreme 
    I believe that the truth is somewhere both in between and way beyond 
that. I believe we have common problems that require common approaches. 
I believe we need a Government in Washington that is leaner but not 
meaner, one that does not pretend to be the savior of the country but 
does not presume to sit on the sidelines, either, one that, instead, is 
a partner in working with the American people to increase opportunity 
while we shrink bureaucracy, to empower people to make the most of their 
own lives, and to enhance the security of the American people, both here 
at home on our streets and around the world. I believe that such a 
Government would promote both opportunity and responsibility. And I 
believe that such a Government should have clear priorities that put the 
interests of the American people first, the interests of all the 
American people.
    Now, there are strong feelings on both sides of this debate. And a 
lot of what is said may be hard to follow. But I think it's important 
that we keep in mind what is really the issue. The issue is, how are we 
going to get this country into the 21st century? How are we going to 
give our children and our grandchildren a chance to live out the 
unlimited aspirations of the human spirit and to fulfill the traditions 
of America.
    Now, let's look at this thing on an issue-by-issue basis. There is 
broad agreement that we should cut the size of Government, that we 
should send more responsibility back to the State and local level, and 
that we should work more in partnership directly with citizens, with 
businesses, with other organizations and less in a regulatory 
Government-knows-best way. There is broad agreement on this. Indeed, we 
started this movement.
    But the question is, how do you implement these challenges, and what 
does the Government still have to do? For example, I believe we should 
downsize the Government, but I think we should invest more in education, 
training, technology, and research. Why? Because I think it's in our 
interest. It looks to me like walking away from our opportunities to 
succeed in the global economy and to develop the capacities of all of 
our people at a time when we have so much diversity in our country and 
the world is getting smaller, so all this racial and ethnic diversity is 
a huge advantage to us. At a time when we have people who have 
phenomenal abilities who live all over the country in tiny, tiny places 
and big, big cities, to walk away from our common objective of 
developing their capacities, it seems to me, is not very smart. I just 
don't think it makes much sense. And I don't think that any theory of 
what we should or shouldn't be doing should be allowed to obscure the 
clear obligation we all have to help our people get into the next 
century. This is about a fight for the future.
    Now, let me put it another way. It seems to me like trying to cut 
back on education right now would be like trying to cut the defense 
budget in the toughest days of the cold war. Because that's what--our 
competition for the future, our security now is going to be determined 
in large measure by whether we can develop the capacities of all of our 
people to learn for a lifetime. That is it.
    For the 12 years before I came here, there was this political tug of 
war where Government was regularly bashed but the deficit quadrupled and 
we walked away from our obligations to invest in our future. For the 4 
years before I came here, we had the slowest job growth in America since 
the Great Depression. For 2 years, we have worked very hard here to both 
create more opportunities and insist on more responsibilities. And we're 
making progress. The deficit is down. The Federal Government is smaller 
by over 100,000. We're on our way to the smallest Federal Government 
since Mr. Kennedy was the President. We have more jobs, more police on 
the street, more prosperity than when I took office. And we have 
invested more in our children.

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    In the last 2 years, we have, I believe, had the best year in terms 
of legislative advancements for education that we've had in 30 years. 
And I might say it was done in a largely bipartisan way. We expanded and 
reformed Head Start. We passed an apprenticeship program for young 
people who don't go on to 4-year colleges but do want to move into good 
jobs after high school. We made college loans more affordable and the 
repayment terms better for millions and millions of middle class and 
lower income students. We made a new commitment to help you to get drugs 
and guns out of our schools and to end the mindless violence that too 
many of our children still suffer from. And of course, with your help, 
we passed Goals 2000, something that was very, very important to me and 
very important to you. And it's a clear example of Government as a 
partner, not a savior and not on the sidelines.
    No one disagrees with the fact that education is largely a State 
matter when it comes to funding and a local matter when it comes to 
teaching and learning. But global education and global competition will 
go hand in hand. There must be some idea in our country of the world-
class standards of excellence we need to really meet the challenges of 
the future.
    As Secretary Riley reminded me, when we were Governors working 
together and the ``Nation at Risk'' report came out--that's what the 
name of the report was, and it came out in a Republican administration. 
It was ``A Nation at Risk,'' not one place here and another place there 
and not somebody somewhere else. It was ``A Nation at Risk.'' And Goals 
2000 responds to that. It sets those standards reflecting the national 
education goals that were adopted by the Governors in 1989, working with 
President Bush and the Bush administration, plus a commitment to 
continuing development of our teachers, plus the very important parental 
involvement goal that the PTA got in this--[applause].
    If it was a good idea last year with bipartisan support, it didn't 
just stop being a good idea because we had one election. We worked for 
10 years on this in a bipartisan way. It didn't stop being a good idea 
because we had an election. That is not what the election was about. It 
was not about turning our backs on world-class excellence in education 
and a partnership to make our schools better and the support that you 
need to succeed in all of your communities. That was not what was going 
    The success we've had in the last 2 years is building on what has 
been done in the last 10 years. You know, after all, I think it's 
important to remember that there's been a lot of progress in our schools 
in the last 10 years. To hear these folks talk about it, you'd think 
that it's all gotten worse and only because we had a Department of 
Education in Washington--ran the whole thing into the ditch. [Laughter] 
I don't know what they're doing in Idaho today, carrying the burden of 
the Department of Education around all day long in their schools. 
[Laughter] That's the kind of talk we've got.
    The truth is that kids are staying in school longer, more of them 
are going to college, math and science performance is up, because we 
emphasized, we worked on those things. We did it together. Are there a 
lot of problems? You bet there are. But this country is the most 
remarkable experiment in diversity of all kinds in all of human history. 
And we are doing better because we are working together and setting 
goals and working as partners. And that's what we should continue to do.
    Dick Riley in a way has been perfectly suited to be the Secretary of 
Education at this time. I can't imagine why anybody would want to 
abolish his job after watching him do it for a couple of years. I'd just 
like to point out something to the people who say on the other side that 
the answer to our problems in education is to abolish the Department of 
Education. I noticed one of the Republican leaders said the other day 
that they had actually--the Department of Education actually made things 
    Well, here are the facts. There are fewer people working in the 
Department of Education today than were working for the Federal 
Government in education when it was part of the Department of Health, 
Education and Welfare in the seventies. It's an inconvenient fact for 
the people who want to abolish it.
    Here's another interesting fact. Secretary Riley has proposed to end 
in this present rescission package that we sent up, or in the coming 
budget, 41 programs and to consolidate 17 others, 58 of the 240 programs 
in the Department of Education--inconvenient facts for those that are 
saying that it's terrible and they're throwing money away. It happens to 
be true.

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    But we don't agree with what they're trying to do in the House, to 
cut $1.7 billion from education, to eliminate all the funds for the safe 
and drug-free school program, all the funds at a time when, 
disturbingly, young people are beginning to use drugs casually again, 
forgetting that they're dangerous and illegal, when schools still need 
the funds to help them be literally more secure in difficult areas. They 
want to eliminate all the funds in that bill for teaching homeless 
children, all the funds for the parent resource centers, which you know 
are very important. We're dealing with a lot of parents, folks, who want 
to do a better job by their kids but need some help and some support 
from people like you who have been showing up in the PTA for years, some 
of you for decades. They need it. [Laughter] Well, your kid stays in 
school. [Laughter] Listen, I got to keep laughing. Otherwise, we'll be 
in tears thinking about this.
    They want to eliminate much of the money for computers and new 
technologies. The amount they propose to cut from Goals 2000 is equal to 
all the funds now allocated for poor and rural communities and all the 
funds necessary to help 4,000 schools raise their academic standards. 
And they want, of course, to cut back on the School Lunch Program.
    Now, how are we going to cut? Dick Riley found a way to cut 41 
programs without doing this. This School Lunch Program is a mystery to 
me. Everybody wants to cut funds in the Agriculture Department because 
the number of farmers is smaller. You know what we did? We finally 
concluded a world trade agreement so that our competitors would have to 
cut agricultural subsidies, so we cut agriculture subsidies. And then we 
realized we had basically an outdated structure in the Agriculture 
Department. The best line in the '92 Presidential campaign was Ross 
Perot's line about the employee at the Department of Agriculture who had 
to go to the psychiatrist because he lost his farmer. [Laughter] Because 
the number of farmers had gone down.
    So what did we do? We closed 1,200 agricultural offices. They want 
to cut the School Lunch Program. I think we know how to cut better than 
they do. I think that's the way to do it.
    So let me say again, every effort we had in the last 2 years, from 
Head Start to apprenticeships, to Goals 2000, to the reformation of the 
Elementary and Secondary Education Act, everything we did was done in a 
bipartisan way. And now we see education becoming both a partisan and a 
divisive issue again. We cannot walk away from this. You need to be 
here. You are the reinforcements for America's future, and I want you to 
go up there today and say that, say this $1.7 billion in a $1.5 trillion 
budget is a drop in the bucket and it should not be eliminated to pay 
for $188 billion in tax cuts. It should not.
    You know, I want us to have the right framework here so that you can 
go back home and do your job. I've done everything I could and Secretary 
Riley's done everything he could to devise Goals 2000 so that we would 
really have a partnership. We'd say, here are some resources, here are 
the goals, here's what we know; you decide how to implement. We want 
more responsibility for principals and teachers and parents at the 
grassroots level. We want less control of education in Washington. We 
have done a lot in the legislation that we have passed to reduce the 
degree of Federal control and rulemaking below that which previous 
administrations imposed. But we don't want to walk away from the kids 
and the future of this country.
    I want to just mention one other thing. I want to thank Secretary 
Riley again for taking the lead in creating the National Family 
Involvement Partnership for Learning. It includes many members of the 
private sector, more than 100 organizations, including the PTA. He's 
been proposing seven basic steps for all parents to take. And I like 
them so much that I want to repeat them for every parent now here at the 
PTA meeting, because if these things are not done, then our efforts 
won't succeed. And if these things are done, then our efforts here 
become even more important to support the parents who are doing them: 
find more time to spend with your children; read with them; set high 
expectations for them; take away the remote control on school nights; 
check their homework, check their grades; set a good example; and talk 
directly to your children, especially to your teenagers, about the 
dangers of drugs and alcohol and the values you want them to have. Thank 
you, Mr. Secretary. That's about as good as it gets.
    Let me say again in closing my remarks, I am doing my best to work 
in good faith with this new Congress. There are deep trends going on 
here which can make this a positive time

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if we stop posturing and put our people first. We do have to change the 
way Government works. We need dramatic reform in the Government, and we 
are working hard to get it.
    But what is the purpose of all this? The purpose of all this is the 
same purpose that you have: to elevate the potential of the American 
people to make the most of their own lives, to keep the American dream 
alive, and to guarantee a future for their children. So go up there on 
Capitol Hill and remind everybody that we need to work together, tone 
down the rhetoric, and put the kids of this country and our future 
    Thank you, and God bless you.

[At this point, Kathryn Whitfill, president, National Congress of 
Parents and Teachers, thanked the President for his support and voiced 
her concern about program cuts and block grants. She then introduced a 
participant who spoke about the President's reaction to elimination of 
the Department of Education.]

    The President. Well, for one thing, you have to ask yourself, why 
would they do this? First of all, there's a burden--why would you do it? 
And there are only two reasons to do it, to save money or because you 
think it's doing bad things or it's useless. And I noticed the other day 
that the majority leader of the Senate said that it was one of those 
departments that had done more harm than good.
    Now, most of the time it's been in existence the Department of 
Education has been under control of Republican Secretaries of Education. 
Maybe they did do more harm than good--[laughter]--I hadn't really 
thought so until he said it. But maybe we need to reexamine that. But 
Secretary Riley has not done more harm than good. He's done more good 
than harm by a good, long ways.
    And I think that it's just sort of fashionable now. I think the 
truth is that there have been big commitments made in terms of tax cuts, 
mostly for upper income people, and big commitments made in other areas. 
And so they are looking for ways to save money. But this is not a good 
place. This is not the right thing to do. And we have worked very hard 
to have what I consider to be the appropriate level of partnership.
    Now, on the block grant issue, generally, let me just say I'm not 
against all block grants. I strongly supported the community development 
block grant, for example, which the States get and which bigger cities 
get, and then they get to decide how they're going to use it to develop 
the economy and make reports on an annual basis to Federal Government. I 
think that's fine.
    We supported in the crime bill last year more block granting, more 
flexibility to States and localities in prevention on crime and crime 
prevention programs because programs that work in one community may not 
work in another. They know what works best there. We've now given 26 
States waivers from Federal rules to implement welfare reforms in their 
own States, because they know more about it.
    But let's not kid ourselves, the School Lunch Program was proposed 
for block granting just to save the money, because it works the way it 
is. And we've made some significant improvements in the School Lunch 
Program. Last year, with your support, as you know, we got the 
nutritional standards up; we made some changes. The only reason it was 
proposed for block granting is because block grants are in; they're 
fashionable; they're a la mode today. And that's the way they could save 
some money.
    If you add all this money up, it's just not very much money in this 
big Federal budget. And you could argue that we should be doing much 
more for education, but I think it's very hard to argue that we should 
be spending less.

[A participant asked how the PTA could become more involved in efforts 
to make schools safer.]

    The President. Well, I think the first thing I would say about that 
is that in the absence of security, not much learning is going to occur. 
You know that. We know that there are thousands of children who stay 
home from school every day because they are afraid of what might happen 
to them in school. We see constantly examples of violence both in school 
buildings and then in the near vicinity of schools.
    Now, what we tried to do with the safe and drug-free schools act, 
because there was violence in the schools and in the perimeter, is to 
provide some funds for things like security devices, metal detectors, 
things like that, but also more enforcement officers in the outside of 
school. Then I think you must have--the PTA, and all the other committed 
groups in the country that care about the schools, but especially the 
PTA, has to work with every

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school district to make sure that there really is a functioning security 
    You know, there are schools that are very safe environments in very 
high-crime areas in this country. So it's simply not true that there are 
no schools in high-crime areas that are safe. There are schools that are 
quite safe in very high-crime areas because of the security policies 
they have and because of the leadership and the discipline and the 
organization of resources that have been adopted and because they've 
gotten a lot of parental help often.
    And so my recommendation is that you identify the schools that you 
think have done the best job in the most difficult circumstances, figure 
out what they did, and make sure every PTA chapter in the country has 
access to that knowledge, and then if we can get these funds and help 
out there, that you spend them in a way that will maximize the security 
in the schools in your area.
    It's a huge deal, and there's no way--this is the kind of 
partnership we need. I mean, there's no way in the world the Federal 
Government can tell anybody how they should secure one, two, or three 
schools, because they all have different circumstances.

[A participant asked what State and local school officials could do to 
help protect the school-to-work initiative from future budget cuts.]

    The President. Well, the Federal school-to-work initiative 
essentially tries to build on the work that's being done in States now. 
When I ran for President, I was fond of talking about the fact that we 
were the only advanced country in the world that had no real system for 
dealing with all the young people who finished high school but didn't go 
on to 4-year colleges and that, while most jobs in the 21st century 
would not require 4-year college degrees, most jobs would require at 
least 2 years of some sort of education and training after high school. 
And we already saw in the difference between the '80 and the '90 census 
what's happening to the earnings of people who don't have post-high 
school education and training.
    Therefore, in terms of the long-term stability of a middle class 
lifestyle in America, that is, the idea that if you work harder and 
smarter, you might actually do a little better year in and year out, 
this school-to-work system, the idea of putting in to some sort of 
apprenticeship development system in America, may be the most 
significant thing we can do to raise incomes. And so what our system 
does is to provide funds to States to help to build their own systems 
according to the best information we have and to build on the systems 
that States are working on.
    And you're right. I did a lot of work on this at home because I 
became so alarmed, even as we got the college-going rate up, that, 
though we increased it quite a lot, there are all these people out there 
that were still just cut loose after high school. And we have to put an 
end to that. The best way to protect that program here is to--for every 
State to aggressively get with the Department of Education and begin to 
participate as quickly as possible.
    That's the same thing with the Goals 2000. Secretary Riley's 
probably going to talk about this tomorrow, but I think we're on track 
for over 40 States to be involved in that pretty soon. And so the more 
States get involved, the more people get involved at the local level, 
the more it's Democrats and Republicans and independents--it's not a 
political deal, it's education--the more likely we are to continue to go 
forward with this.

[A participant asked how future cuts in entitlement programs that affect 
children could be prevented.]

    The President. Well, I think, first of all, it's important for me to 
point out to all of you, if you talk about the entitlements, that an 
entitlement--let me say, an entitlement is a program in which there is 
no predetermined amount of money to be spent. That is, if you need it 
under certain circumstances, the money will flow. A nonentitlement is a 
program where the Congress appropriates a certain amount of money every 
year and you spend that and it runs out and you don't spend anymore.
    Entitlements basically fall into three categories. One is--the best 
example is agricultural entitlements, where the farm programs are set up 
like that because the farm economy will change from year to year, you 
know, based on not only weather conditions and crop conditions in the 
United States but all around the world. And it's necessary to sort of 
even out the farming cycle.
    The other programs, and by far the biggest entitlements today, are 
Medicare and Medicaid, the medical programs. And the main problem with 
the Federal budget today is not discre-

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tionary spending and education, is not defense spending--both 
discretionary spending and defense spending have been going down for the 
first time in 25 years--it's entitlements in health care, health care 
costs going up by more than the rate of inflation, and the accumulated 
interest payments on the debt run up between 1981 and 1993, when I took 
office. That's basically what the big problem is with the budget.
    The other entitlements are entitlements basically for poor people, 
generally. And except for Medicaid, they, by and large, have not kept up 
with inflation, but they do provide a safety net. So if there is going 
to be a move away from those entitlements, the burden is on those who 
would move away to say, how are you going to care for these poor 
    Now, I like the Women, Infants and Children program; I like the 
School Lunch Program. I think these programs have worked pretty well for 
us over time. And we have an interest, all of us do, in not going back 
to the days when children were basically living in very brutal 
conditions. And I think there is a national interest in the welfare of 
the children.
    I'm all for having the States have more flexibility about how to do 
these things, but I think there is a national interest in helping States 
to keep a floor under the lives of our children. Not every State is as 
wealthy as every other State. Not every State has the same priorities. 
So, having a system that uniformly says we ought to have a quality of 
life for our poor children, that we believe that all of our children 
ought to have a chance to get to the starting line is pretty important.
    What does the first education goal say?
    Audience members. Ready to learn.
    The President. Yes. Every kid ought to show up ready to learn, 
right? Not just intellectually but physically able to learn. My argument 
is, if I were making your strategy, I would say that we represent the 
PTA, and our schools can't succeed if, by the time our kids show up for 
school, their deprivations have already been so great that they will 
never overcome them, and that the rest of us will pay a whole lot more 
in tax money and social misery later on down the road if we back away 
from our obligation to get these kids to school ready to learn.

[Ms. Whitfill thanked the President for participating and presented him 
with a paperweight.]

    The President. Thank you very much. Thank you. Bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:15 a.m. at the Washington Renaissance 
Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Essie Middleton, president of the 
Arkansas PTA and member of the board of directors, National Congress of 
Parents and Teachers.