Excerpts From President's Address to Independent Schools' Group

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Following are excerpts from President Reagan's address to the National Association of Independent Schools on Feb. 28.

This spring, we mark the second anniversary of a Department of Education report entitled, "A Nation at Risk." That report concluded, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."

From 1963 to 1980, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores showed a virtually unbroken decline. Science achievement scores showed a similar drop. Most shocking, the report stated that more than one-tenth of our 17-year-olds could be considered functionally illiterate.

And so Americans decided to put an end to educational decline. Across the land, parents, teachers, school officials, and state and local officeholders began to improve the fundamentals of American education. I don't mean they went to work on budget-busting proposals or new frills in the curriculum. They went to work on teaching and learning.

Signs of Reform

When we took office, only a handful of states had task forces on education. Today, they all do. Since 1981, 43 states have raised their graduation requirements. Five more have higher requirements under consideration.

Perhaps the most telling figure is this: Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have stopped declining and have risen in two of the last three years--the best record in the last 20 years--and we've only begun.

States and localities, which quite properly bear the main responsibility for our schools, have taken an active part in this movement for educational reform. But we have made certain that the federal government has also played a leading role. Our Administration has replaced 28 narrow educational programs with one block grant, to give state and local officials greater leeway in spending federal aid. We have rolled back regulations that were hampering educators with needless paperwork. We have taken steps to promote discipline in our schools, including the establishment of the National School Safety Center. And we have launched Partnerships in Education--a program in which businesses, labor unions, and other groups of working people are pitching in to help schools in their communities. Today, there are more than 40,000 such partnerships in operation. In Philadelphia, for example, business leaders have raised $26 million to support the Catholic schools that educate one-third of the city's children.

Under the previous Administration, even though federal education budgets soared, overall spending on education throughout America adjusted for inflation, actually declined by $17 billion, dragged down by the weakening economy. But with inflation down and the economy now growing again, education spending through the country--despite restraint at the federal level--has actually gone up by almost $18 billion. Today, many states are running a surplus and are in a better position to help fund our public schools and universities. ...

... In 1983, colleges and universities ... reported endowments total-ling some $29.6 billion--the largest one-year figure since ... 1966.

On Postsecondary Aid

Now in recent weeks, there has been a certain amount of confusion regarding our budget proposals on education. Let me take this opportunity to make matters clear.

In our proposal, we have recommended reserving aid for the needy, limiting aid per student to a level we can afford, closing loopholes that lead to abuse and error, and cutting excessive subsidies to banks and others. Regarding student loans, as things stand now, our nation provides some aid to college students from the highest income families--some to students who come from families with incomes higher than $100,000. This defies common sense, insults simple justice, and must stop. Government has no right to force the least affluent to subsidize the sons and daughters of the wealthy. Under our proposal, this will change.

Those whose family incomes are too high to qualify for guaranteed loans with heavy interest subsidies will still have access to guaranteed, but unsubsidized, loans of up to $4,000. And every qualified student who wants to go to college will still be able to do so. Yes, our proposal may cause some families to make difficult adjustments. But by bringing the budget under control, we will avoid the far more painful adjustment of living in a wrecked economy--and that is what we are absolutely determined to do.

Our budget proposal is reasonable, prudent, and just. I consider it fully deserving of the support for it that I am asking you--and all Americans--to give.

Five 'Guideposts'

... As we continue our journey during the next four years and beyond, Secretary Bennett and I believe there are five aspects of education to which we must give our full attention--five guideposts, if you will, to lead us on our way: choice, teachers, curriculum, setting, and parents.

First, choice. Parents should have greater freedom to send their children to the schools they desire, and to do so without interference by local, state, or federal levels of government. Diversity and competition among schools should be encouraged, not discouraged. At the state level, efforts to encourage parental choice might involve both legislation to permit parents to choose from any public school within their states, and efforts to eliminate red tape surrounding within-district transfers.

At the federal level, our Administration has made two proposals to expand parental choice. Tuition tax credits would provide some support to middle- and lower-income parents with children in independent schools. This would be only fair, since these parents are also paying their full share of taxes to support our public schools.

Education vouchers would deliver federal aid for educationally disadvantaged children not to schools, but directly to parents. Under our plan, each year selected parents would receive one voucher, worth several hundred dollars, per child. These parents would then be free to use their vouchers at any schools they chose.

Tuition tax credits and education vouchers would foster greater diversity and, hence, higher standards throughout our system of education. These proposals have the support of the American people. Make no mistake. Secretary Bennett and I intend to see them through to their enactment.

Our second guidepost, teachers. Studies indicate that, by the end of this decade, America will need more than one million new teachers--and that, by 1990, almost two-thirds of our teachers will have been hired since 1980.

Today, America boasts thousands of fine teachers, but in too many cases, teaching has become a resting-place for the unmotivated and unqualified. This we can no longer allow. We must give our teachers greater honor and respect. We must sweep away laws and regulations, such as unduly restrictive certification requirements, that prevent good people from entering this profession. And we must pay and promote our teachers according to merit. Hard-earned tax dollars have no business rewarding mediocrity. They must be used to encourage excellence.

Third, curriculum--deciding what we want our children to learn. This is, to be sure, a difficult question, but this much we already know: We cannot allow our curricula to be decided by narrow interest groups. They must be determined by the intellectual, moral, and civic needs of our students themselves.

We also know that certain basic subjects must not be neglected. Too many students today are allowed to abandon vocational and college prep courses for courses of doubtful value that prepare them for neither work nor higher education. Compared to other industrialized countries, moreover, we have fallen behind in the sciences and math. In Japan, advanced course work in mathematics and science starts in elementary school. So Japan, with a population only about half the size of ours, graduates about as many engineers as we do. In the Soviet Union, students learn the basic concepts of algebra and geometry in elementary school. Compared to the United States, the Soviet Union graduates from college more than three times as many specialists in engineering. It's time to put an end to this learning gap by insisting that all American students become fully conversant with science and math, as well as history, reading, and writing.

Students should not only learn basic subjects, but basic values. We must teach the importance of justice, equality, religion, liberty, and standards of right and wrong. And we must give them a picture of America that is balanced and full, containing our virtues along with our faults. New York University Dean Dr. Herbert London learned this the hard way. One day his 13-year-old daughter came home from school, with tears in her eyes, to say, "I don't have a future." She showed her father a paper she had been given in school. It listed horrors that it claimed waited for her generation, including air pollution so bad that everyone would have to wear a gas mask.

'Myths' Being Taught

As a result of that incident, London wrote a book called Why Are They Lying to Our Children?--el20Lwhich documents the myths being taught in so many of our schools. Our children should know, London argues, that because our society decided to do something about pollution, our environment is getting better, not worse. Emissions of most conventional air pollutants, for example, have decreased significantly, while trout and other fish are returning to streams where they haven't been seen for decades.

Our children should know that because Americans abhor discrimination, the number of black families living in our suburbs has grown more than three times the rate of white families living in suburbs, and that between 1960 and 1982 the number of black Americans in our colleges more than quadrupled.

By any objective measure, we live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world, and our children should know that. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick once put it, "... We must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be."

Our fourth guidepost is setting. In schools throughout America, learning has been crowded out by alcohol, drugs, and crime. In 1983, for example, a distinguished panel reported on one of our major urban school systems and found that, during the prior year, fully one-half of the high-school teachers who responded to the survey had fallen victim to robbery, larceny, or assault on school property. Of the high-school students surveyed, nearly four-tenths had likewise been victimized. The panel found, moreover, that during the prior year, 17 percent of the female students, and 37 percent of the male students surveyed, had carried weapons to school. In the name of our children, this must stop.

In the courts, for too long we have concentrated on the rights of the few disruptive students, and allowed simple matters of discipline to become major legal proceedings. Supreme Court Justice Powell has criticized the "indiscriminate reliance upon the judiciary, and the adversary process, as the means of resolving many of the most routine problems arising in the classroom." It's high time we returned common sense to this process--and paid attention to the rights of the great majority of students who want to learn.

I am proud to say that our Justice Department participated in the recent Supreme Court case that restored the authority of school officials to conduct reasonable searches. There's no need to call in a grand jury every time a principal needs to check a student locker. Today I am directing our outstanding new Attorney General, Ed Meese, to work with Secretary Bennett in examining possible modifications of federal law to avoid undercutting the authority of state and local school officials to maintain effective discipline.

Discipline is important, not for its own sake, but as a way of instilling a virtue that is central to life in our democracy--self-discipline. And if it is sometimes difficult to assert rightful authority, we must ask: "Who better to correct the student's arithmetic? His math teacher? Or years later, his boss? Who better to teach the student respect for rules? His principal? Or someday, the police?

Let us teach our sons and daugh-ters to view academic standards, codes of civilized behavior, and knowledge itself with reverence. Let us do so, not for the sake of those standards, those codes, or that knowledge, but for the sake of those young human beings.

Our fifth and, perhaps most important guidepost is parents. Parents care about their children's education with an intensity central authorities do not share. A widely respected educator, Dr. Eileen Gardner, has written: "The record shows that when control of education is placed in federal hands, it is not controlled by 'the people' but by small yet powerful lobbies motivated by self-interest or dogma. When centralized in this way, it is beyond the control of the parents and local communities it is designed to serve. It becomes impervious to feedback."

The answer is to restore state and local governments--and above all, parents--to their rightful place in the educational process. Parents know that they cannot educate their children on their own. We must recognize, in turn, that schools cannot educate students without the personal involvement of parents. ...

Anniversary of a Classic

This month, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of an American classic. It's a book I read in school myself. My guess is that most of you read it in school, too, and that most of your children--and their children--will as well. Its title: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

You remember the story. Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, float on a raft down the Mississippi. They seem to have an adventure every time they drift ashore, and they become entangled with townsfolk, two colorful con artists, and members of feuding clans. Huck works hard to keep Jim free, and in the end he succeeds.

In this work, Mark Twain presents the humor, openness, and purity of heart so characteristic of the American spirit. I believe the book says much about the moral aims of education--about the qualities of the heart that we seek to impart to our children.

At one point in the book, Huck talks about evenings on the raft. "We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed--only a little kind of low chuckle. ...

"Every night we passed towns, some of them away up on black hillsides, nothing but just a shiny bed of lights. ... The fifth night we passed St. Louis, and it was like the whole world lit up. In St. Petersburg they used to say there was twenty or thirty thousand people in St. Louis, but I never believed it till I see that wonderful spread of lights at two o'clock that still night."

In the decades to come, may our schools give to our children the skills to navigate through life as gracefully as Huck navigated the Mississippi. May they teach our students the same hatred of bigotry and love of their fellow men that Huck shows on every page, and especially his love of his big friend, Jim. And may they equip them to be as thankful for the gift of life in America in the 21st century as Huckleberry Finn in the 19th.

Vol. 04, Issue 24

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