[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[April 24, 1998]
[Pages 615-617]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks at the National Teacher of the Year Award Ceremony
April 24, 1998

    The President. Ladies and gentlemen, I was sitting here listening to 
Secretary Riley and Senator Robb, thinking about how very long we've been working 
together, principally on education--more than 15 years, the 3 of us--and 
I've noticed a few changes. For one thing, I was looking at Chuck's 
remarks, and as the years go by, the print on our notes gets bigger. 
    But I must say, their fidelity to the cause has never wavered. I 
continue to be astonished by Dick Riley's 
energy and passion and devotion to education. We couldn't have a better 
champion as Secretary of Education. And I am very grateful for a man 
with Senator Robb's raw courage, to have him 
in the Senate and on the side of our children.
    I'd also like to thank Congressman Tom Davis and Congressman Tom Petri for 
being here to honor their respective Teachers of the Year. Congressman 
Davis swears that he went to junior high school with our honoree's wife, 
who is also a teacher. But the age disparity appears to be too great for 
that to be true. [Laughter]
    I'd also like to welcome Gordon Ambach, 
the Executive Director of the Council of Chief State School Officers; 
Mary Beth Blegen, the 1997 Teacher of the 
Year; and say a special word of appreciation to all the other Teachers 
of the Year who are here from all the States and the territories.
    You know, this is the Rose Garden, and from these steps we have, at 
various times, paid tribute to our bravest soldiers, our pioneering 
astronauts, our greatest athletes. Americans who, in offering up their 
personal best made our spirits soar, and sometimes changed the course of 
history, and in so doing, earned the title of hero. But nothing could be 
more fitting than to celebrate the men and women whose great deeds

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are too often unsung, but who, in offering up their personal best every 
day, help to create those other heroes. For every soldier, every 
astronaut, every scientist, every athlete, every artist can thank in no 
small measure a teacher, or more than one, for what he or she ultimately 
was able to become.
    In that sense, we celebrate heroes, here today, who build up our 
children and America's future. We're especially glad to honor this 
year's National Teacher of the Year, Mr. Philip Bigler, but all the other teachers, too. I'm sure he would be 
the first to say--and I'm sure all of you would be the first to say--
that you really stand here in the shoes of tens of thousands of others 
who every day do their best to lift our children up.
    Your tools have changed over the years; textbooks have been updated, 
slates have given way to computers. But the most important tools--the 
heart and soul and compassion--are still the same. The passion for 
opening young minds to knowledge; the unshakable faith in the potential 
and possibility of every child; the commitment every now and then to 
stay after class to help a struggling student; the vigilance to answer 
every child's discouraged ``I can't'' with a determined ``Yes, you 
    Our national honoree, Philip Bigler, 
brings all these gifts to his history classes at, appropriately, Thomas 
Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. For more 
than 20 years, his students haven't just studied history, they have 
lived it. He's transformed his classroom into a virtual time machine, 
challenging students to debate each other as members of rival ancient 
Greek city states, as lawyers before the Supreme Court, as Presidential 
candidates named Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
    Through these historic simulations, his 
students have learned lessons about democracy and the meaning of 
citizenship, lessons that will last a lifetime, lessons we want every 
American to know.
    We need more teachers like Philip Bigler 
and all our other honorees in every classroom in America today. For it 
is they who can make our schools the best in the world. It is they who 
can guarantee that America will have another American Century in the 
21st century.
    Of course, we have to help them, and here in Washington, as Senator 
Robb said, we're doing our best to push an agenda for educational 
excellence for all. Secretary Riley has 
labored for it every day since we've been here, to empower teachers and 
students and principals and parents, through national standards and 
accountability, through smaller classes and better classrooms and more 
hookups to the Internet, through more master teachers and more charter 
    For 4 years and more, the Congress and the President worked together 
in bipartisan fashion toward higher standards, greater accountability, 
and more opportunity. Indeed, in just the Balanced Budget Act last year, 
we had the biggest increase investment in public education in 35 years, 
and the biggest expansion of opportunity for our children to go on to 
college since the GI bill 50 years ago.
    As Senator Robb said, this week Congress did a little about-face. 
The Senate voted against the school construction program to modernize 
our schools, against national standards, against reducing class sizes in 
the early grades. It voted to weaken the movement to charter schools and 
our efforts to hook all our classrooms and libraries up to the Internet 
by the year 2000.
    Instead, they voted for a very small, as Senator Robb said, tax 
incentive proposal that allegedly will help parents meet elementary and 
secondary school expenses. But the truth is, this bill, though it cost 
$1.6 billion, which is a lot of money in Federal assistance to 
education, would offer an average of $7 in tax relief for parents of the 
90 percent of our children who are in public schools, and just $37 in 
tax relief on average for those with children in private schools. Upper 
income families would get a disproportionate share of the money. 
Families struggling to make ends meet wouldn't get one red cent. Public 
education would be weakened by siphoning limited Federal resources away. 
Now, we can do better than that. And I'd like to ask the teachers to 
help me prepare the right lesson plan to ensure that we do.
    Earlier this month, a House committee took, in some ways, an even 
more shocking step in our effort reward outstanding teachers all across 
America by actually eliminating funding for the important work of the 
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which certifies the 
master teachers--something that one of our colleagues, Governor Jim 
Hunt from North Carolina, has devoted a 
major part of the last 10 years to working for.

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    By defining the standards of excellence in teaching, the National 
Board helps to focus and upgrade teacher training, recognize outstanding 
teachers, keep our best teachers in the classroom, and help them help 
other teachers. National Board certification helps our teachers test 
themselves against the toughest standards. I believe it would be a 
terrible mistake to end national support for the work of the board, and 
I'm going to work with Congress to make sure that this provision never 
reaches my desk.
    Every school in America ought to have at least one board-certified 
teacher who can inspire and help all his or her colleagues. Now is no 
time to walk away from our commitment to public education or to reject 
our common obligation to help our children and to help you help our 
children. It's no time for Congress to set a poor example for students 
by ignoring the evidence, the lessons that are plainly there from all 
the educational research that has been done in the last 15 years, since 
the issuance of the ``Nation at Risk'' report; from all the anecdotal 
evidence they could pick up by talking to any one of you who have been 
honored by your fellow teachers and your States.
    This should not be a partisan issue; it should not be an ideological 
issue. It ought to be, purely and simply, what can we do to help you do 
what is best for our children and their future?
    The most encouraging thing I can say about looking at all of you is, 
while we go on and debate all this, you're going back to your classes, 
back to our kids, and because of you they're going to do just fine while 
we argue about, often, the wrong things. [Laughter] And I think that 
should be deeply encouraging to the American people.
    Now, I close with these words, so that we can give our honoree the 
last word. The great Daniel Webster once said, ``If we work upon marble, 
it will perish. If we work upon brass, time will efface it. If we rear 
temples, they will crumble into dust. But if we work upon immortal 
minds, we engrave on those tablets something that will brighten to all 
    Thank you, Philip Bigler, for brightening 
those minds to all eternity.

[At this point, Mr. Bigler made brief remarks.]

    The President. I think we're supposed to say, class dismissed. Thank 
you. [Laughter]

Note: The President spoke at 3:22 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to Mary Beth Blegen, 1996 National 
Teacher of the Year.