[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1998, Book I)]
[May 7, 1998]
[Pages 710-714]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

Remarks to the Mayors Conference on Public Schools
May 7, 1998

    Thank you very much. Mr. Mayor, Secretary 
Riley, thank you for your outstanding work. 
I'd like to thank Attorney General Reno and 
Secretary Slater, Secretary Herman, Secretary Glickman for 
also coming, along with James Lee Witt, our 
FEMA Director. I'd like to thank Mickey Ibarra 
and Lynn Cutler for the work that they do with 
you and all the other members of the White House staff, and say a 

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word of welcome to Senator Kennedy and 
Congressman Martinez, about whom I'll 
say more in a moment.
    I'm sorry if I cost Mayor Helmke any votes 
in the Republican primary. [Laughter] It is his great misfortune to have 
been my friend for a long time. But surely, whatever he lost he got back 
by outing me as a law school truant today. [Laughter] I hope he has 
recovered all that lost ground. Unfortunately, it's true. [Laughter]
    Because this is my only opportunity to appear before the press 
today, before I get into my remarks about education I would like to make 
a few important comments about the peace process in the Middle East.
    First, I think it's important in the temporary frustration of the 
moment not to forget what Israelis and Palestinians have accomplished in 
just the past few years: the peace agreement signed here in September of 
1993, based on the Oslo accords, the agreement over Hebron, continuing 
in very open dialog, an unprecedented amount of security cooperation. 
What we are trying to do now is simply to regain the momentum that has 
been lost in the past few months, not by imposing our ideas on anyone, 
because only the parties can make decisions that will affect the lives 
they have to live, their security, and their future.
    What we're searching for is common ground to achieve what Prime 
Minister Netanyahu asked us to pursue a 
year ago, the start of accelerated permanent status negotiations. It's 
important not to forget that. We are not talking about a final agreement 
between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we're talking about is 
what kind of agreement can they make within the framework of their 
previous agreements that will get them into discussing all the difficult 
issues that would allow them to wrap this up, hopefully on time by the 
end of May next year, which was the timetable established in the Oslo 
    Secretary Albright, I believe, 
made some real progress in London. Both Prime Minister 
Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat were seriously constructive. They discussed a set of 
ideas that we believe are necessary to get into those final status 
    Prime Minister Netanyahu has asked us 
to send our Special Envoy, Dennis Ross, back 
to the region to pursue creative ways to make our ideas acceptable to 
both sides. He leaves later today with my instruction to literally go 
the extra mile, to seize this opportunity for peace, to launch the final 
status talks.
    The Prime Minister and I agreed to 
try to do this a year ago, and we're going to do our best. I do not want 
to minimize the difficulties. Both sides have to make very hard 
decisions if we're going to keep moving forward. But the prize is a just 
and lasting and secure peace, and the prize can be attained. We're going 
to do everything we can to make it a reality.
    Now, let me say what I said to you before when I was asked to appear 
before this conference. I applaud the mayors for holding this meeting on 
education. You have done an enormous service to the county by being here 
and by putting this document out. You can lead the way to a revolution 
of high standards and high expectations, 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 dedicated teachers, 
fine principals, supportive parents, other committed reformers, and our 
students. But all of us know we have a lot more to do. We know that we 
have the world's best system of higher education, and we've taken 
unprecedented steps to open the doors of college to all Americans. We're 
moving forward on other levels, as well.
    Tuesday, the United States Senate passed, 91 to 7, a bill that 
articulates the principles that I set out 5 years ago in my proposed 
``GI bill'' for America's workers. I think all educators know that we 
have to create a system of lifetime learning in America. Everybody has 
got to be able to go back to school throughout their lifetime. Indeed, 
one of the most important provisions in the balanced budget was that 
which provided a HOPE scholarship tax credit of $1,500 a year for first 
2 years of college and continuing tax credits for other forms of 
education for people of any age when they have to go back to school.
    What this ``GI bill'' will do, this present legislation that the 
Senate passed, is to untangle and streamline the current large number of 
Government programs on job training so that workers can get a simple 
skill grant to choose the training they need. That is very important.
    But everyone knows we still have a lot of work to do in our public 
schools. Our public schools, for generations, have taught our children 
not only how to read and write but what

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it means to be an American. And they have embodied the principle that 
everyone ought to have a fair and equal chance to live out their dreams. 
We know 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 of the 
``Nation At Risk'' report in 1983, dedicated teachers, visionary 
principals, committed students, and involved parents have accomplished a 
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 difficult circumstances that Mayor 
Helmke discussed, the best education in the world. And therefore, I 
really thank you for this action plan. It reflects the lessons that have 
been learned in communities across America. It reflects the goals I have 
sought to advance, that Secretary Riley has 
worked his heart out on for more than 5 years now.
    And I think it's worth mentioning what they are. Every child in 
every community must master the basics with national standards in 
reading and math. Every child must have the chance to learn in small 
classes, especially in the early grades. That's why I proposed a 
national effort to hire 100,000 more teachers and distribute them in a 
way that will enable us to get average class size down to 18 in the 
first 3 grades. Every child should have more public school choice and 
the opportunity to learn in a modern, safe, state-of-the-art school. No 
child in any community, in my opinion, should be passed from grade to 
grade, year after year, without mastering the material. I believe that 
those things are principles that, if they were real in every school in 
America, would strengthen education dramatically.
    I've often said, based on my own personal experience, that there's 
no education problem anywhere in America that hasn't been solved by 
somebody somewhere in America. We have to do more, all of us, to shine a 
spotlight on reforms that work at the local level and then to encourage 
people to embrace other people's changes.
    You know, our Founding Fathers set up the States as laboratories of 
democracy. That was the phrase used by James Madison and by other 
Founders. And in so many ways, they are. I used to say, when I was a 
Governor, I was much more proud of being the second State to do 
something than to be the first State to do something, because if we were 
the second State to do something, it meant we were paying attention to 
the laboratories and we weren't embarrassed to take somebody else's good 
idea if it would help our people. I think today, more than any other 
single group of people, the mayors embody that spirit.
    And this report that Secretary Riley is 
issuing today called ``Turning Around Low Performing Schools,'' shows 
that, number one, it can be done and shows what is done. Let me just 
show it to you; Dick just gave me a copy of it before I came in. 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 the courage to know that no matter how difficult 
their problems are, things can get better, much better. And I hope that 
others will be as unashamed as I was when I was a Governor to take other 
people's ideas. It's okay to give them credit, but the main thing you 
need to do is to take them.
    When parents and teachers take responsibility, asking more of 
themselves, their children, and their leaders, you can replace triumph--
you can replace failure with triumph. That's what this report shows. It 
shows that no school is a lost cause and that no child is a lost cause.
    A lot of you have been kind and generous and openminded enough 
basically to embrace and elevate the remarkable experiment launched by 
Mayor Daley in Chicago. They looked at 
their schools; they saw low test scores, high dropout rates, students 
literally earning diplomas who couldn't read them. But instead of 
walking away, they went to work. Chicago ended social promotion, but 
Chicago also gave more after-school opportunities, had mandatory summer 
school for children who did not pass from grade to grade. And we now 
see, in addition to a lot of other changes, including far more 
involvement by parents, school by school, we now see high standards and 
uncompromising excellence coming back into the classrooms of that city. 
And I have been in the Chicago schools, I believe, three times in the 
last couple of years--I was just there recently--and it is truly 
    The thing that has moved me most, I think, was we were at a school--
not the last time, Mayor, but the time before last--in which there

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were lots of parents there who had clearly rejected the notion that the 
worst thing for their child's self-esteem was being forced to go to 
summer school or forced to repeat a grade. They understood that by the 
time they were 30 years old, if they couldn'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 to spend a few more months learning. And that 
was a terrific achievement. 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 to identify children 
who are failing to learn, to make sure they get the extra help they 
need. I believe that we have to say to every student that America cares 
about you; America believes in you whether you believe in yourself or 
not, right now; but it is our fundamental value in education that you 
must learn in order to be certified as a learner.
    Let me also say, I think we have to say that it is absolutely wrong 
to go about this business of saying you're going to end social promotion 
or have testing with standards and then not do what it takes to bring 
the children up to speed. It would be wrong to do this without giving 
those after-school opportunities, without providing those tutorial 
opportunities, without providing those summer school opportunities.
    And I want to say--I see Sandy Feldman 
here--I want to say that I think that the teachers of this country will 
lead the way on this if they believe that the kids are going to get the 
long-term support they need to be held to the high standards. And I 
think the leaders of the AFT and the NEA feel that way, and I think 
local 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 do it,'' then the only 
remaining question is, what do we have to do and why aren't we doing it? 
And I see now more and more cities responding to this 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 this audience represented, and I know 
that there are people working to take the kind of responsibility for 
transforming their schools.
    Now, if you're going to do that, we have a responsibility to help. 
As Paul said, there are some disputes about what the role of the 
National Government should be, as opposed to the States, as opposed to 
the local level. I think it's important to put on the table first that 
the Federal Government's role in education has always been somewhat 
limited. It's less than a dime on the dollar of the education money. 
That means that we should focus on what works, on national priorities, 
and on helping schools that need the most help because they have the 
least ability to provide for the needs of their people.
    We also ought to focus on those that manifest a desire to do the 
right thing. If you know what works, you ought to reward that. That's 
why I have proposed a network of what we call education opportunity 
zones. Today, Senator Kennedy, Congressman 
Clay, and others, and Mr. Martinez--thank you for being here--will introduce 
legislation to create these zones all across America.
    They will target poor urban and rural communities where schools are 
often in crisis. They will spread reforms that work. You get the benefit 
of these zones if you're prepared to end social promotion, impose higher 
standards, recognize good schools, turn around failing ones, give 
parents public school choice, reward outstanding teachers, help those 
who are having trouble, remove those who cannot make the grade, and make 
sure that all children get the help they need through after-school 
tutoring and summer school.
    This bill should be supported by everyone in both parties who cares 
about children and who cares about turning around failing schools. It is 
the only way we can offer opportunity to and demand responsibility from 
all the children in all of our communities all across America.
    I think one of the most interesting things--I asked for a report 
before I came out here about the cities that are working in environments 
where they don't have the level of direct control that the mayor enjoys 
in Chicago, and I got a good report on what some of you are doing in 
various cities. And the only thing I would say about that is that, 
either through a cooperative process or in some other way, in the end 
someone has to have the ability to make

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a decision and make it stick. Someone has to have the ability to make a 
decision. We don't make those decisions in Washington. We can create 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 someone who can make 
the change.
    I've already said that I believe--and I strongly believe--there's 
enough evidence of what works that if we get the people together at the 
local level, you can create an environment in which that's happening. 
But the mayors, even if they don't directly control the schools, have to 
be willing to speak up and say that this is not being done if it's not 
being done. You are the only people who can do that. You are still the 
single voice of your cities.
    And I have now spent hours and hours and hours looking at the 
Chicago experiment. I have spent no little amount of time on several 
other school systems, including some represented in this room. And I 
honestly believe that in the end, if no one can make a decision and they 
can always bat authority back and forth and no one can be held 
accountable and no one's willing to be responsible for what doesn't work 
as well for what does, it's going to be very tough.
    So we'll do our best to push this bill. I hope you'll help us pass 
it. I think it will really support what you're trying to do. But you 
know as well as I do, that if we have a value of no social promotion, if 
we have a value that says every child can learn, if we're trying to 
propose what works, in the end someone has to be able to take 
responsibility for making that decision.
    Now, let me say that we've got a comprehensive education agenda in 
the Congress, as all of you know. We're trying to get the funds to aid 
for school construction and school repair. Many of our cities have 
average age of their school buildings over 65 years. Many of our other 
cities have huge numbers of children going to school in trailers every 
day. I hope we can pass the construction bill. I hope we can pass the 
smaller classes.
    We're doing our best to get full authorization for America Reads, to 
continue our work to help you hook up all the classrooms and libraries 
in the country to the Internet by the year 2000, to continue our 
struggle for national standards, including the tests in reading and math 
at the fourth and eighth grade.
    We have made some progress on some of these issues in Congress. We 
may have a chance to talk about that in the question and answer period. 
But so far we have not been able to persuade the Congress to embrace the 
smaller class sizes, the modernized schools, the more teachers, the 
higher standards. We're going to keep working to do that. I want to ask 
Congress to join with the mayors across party lines to do what is right 
for our children in the 21st century.
    You have set an example, all of you, without regard to party, who 
have put your children first. Just remember this: I had a meeting with 
the head of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, a couple of days ago, and he said--it was really 
interesting--he said, ``You know, it's hard to be sure about everything 
that's going on in this economy, but one thing is absolutely clear. It 
is now being powered by ideas. We live in an economy of ideas. You have 
more wealth growth on less density of physical product than ever before 
in human history, and the trend will continue unabated. That means all 
the opportunities of tomorrow are those that are in the minds of our 
children waiting to be brought out.'' You recognize that, and together 
we have to bring them out.
    Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 3:10 p.m. in the East Room at the White 
House. In his remarks, he referred to Mayor Paul Helmke of Fort Wayne, 
IN, president, U.S. Conference of Mayors; Prime Minister Binyamin 
Netanyahu of Israel; Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian 
Authority; Ambassador Dennis Ross, Special Middle East Coordinator; 
Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, IL; and Sandra Feldman, president, 
American Federation of Teachers.