Clinton: It’s Time To Target Accountability

January 27, 1999 7 min read

Following are highlights of President Clinton’s Jan. 19 address to a joint session of Congress:

My fellow Americans, I stand before you tonight to report that the state of our union is strong. America is working again. The promise of our future is limitless. But we cannot realize that promise if we allow the hum of our prosperity to lull us into complacency. How we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends upon what we do as a nation today. So with our budget surplus growing, our economy expanding, our confidence rising, now is the moment for this generation to meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century. ...

Now, there are more children from more diverse backgrounds in our public schools than at any time in our history. Their education must provide the knowledge and nurture the creativity that will allow our entire nation to thrive in the new economy.

Today we can say something we couldn’t say six years ago: With tax credits and more affordable student loans, with more work-study grants and more Pell Grants, with education [individual retirement accounts] and the new HOPE Scholarship tax cut that more than 5 million Americans will receive this year, we have finally opened the doors of college to all Americans. With our support, nearly every state has set higher academic standards for public schools, and a voluntary national test is being developed to measure the progress of our students. With over $1 billion in discounts available this year, we are well on our way to our goal of connecting every classroom and library to the Internet.

Last fall, you passed our proposal to start hiring 100,000 new teachers to reduce class size in the early grades. Now I ask you to finish the job.

You know, our children are doing better. SAT scores are up; math scores have risen in nearly all grades. But there’s a problem. While our 4th graders outperform their peers in other countries in math and science, our 8th graders are around average, and our 12th graders rank near the bottom. We must do better. Now, each year the national government invests more than $15 billion in our public schools. I believe we must change the way we invest that money, to support what works and to stop supporting what does not work.

First, later this year, I will send to Congress a plan that, for the first time, holds states and school districts accountable for progress and rewards them for results. My Education Accountability Act will require every school district receiving federal help to take the following five steps.

First, all schools must end social promotion. No child should graduate from high school with a diploma he or she can’t read. We do our children no favors when we allow them to pass from grade to grade without mastering the material.

But we can’t just hold students back because the system fails them. So my balanced budget triples the funding for summer school and after-school programs, to keep a million children learning.

Now, if you doubt this will work, just look at Chicago, which ended social promotion and made summer school mandatory for those who don’t master the basics. Math and reading scores are up three years running--with some of the biggest gains in some of the poorest neighborhoods. It will work, and we should do it.

Second, all states and school districts must turn around their worst-performing schools--or shut them down. That’s the policy established in North Carolina by Gov. Jim Hunt. North Carolina made the biggest gains in test scores in the nation last year. Our budget includes $200 million to help states turn around their own failing schools.

Third, all states and school districts must be held responsible for the quality of their teachers. The great majority of our teachers do a fine job. But in too many schools, teachers don’t have college majors--or even minors--in the subjects they teach. New teachers should be required to pass performance exams, and all teachers should know the subjects they’re teaching. This year’s balanced budget contains resources to help them reach higher standards.

And to attract talented young teachers to the toughest assignments, I recommend a sixfold increase in our program for college scholarships for students who commit to teach in the inner cities and isolated rural areas and Indian communities. Let us bring excellence in every part of America.

Fourth, we must empower parents, with more information and more choices. In too many communities, it’s easier to get information on the quality of the local restaurants than on the quality of the local schools. Every school district should issue report cards on every school. And parents should be given more choices in selecting their public schools.

When I became president, there was just one independent public charter school in all America. With our support, on a bipartisan basis, today there are 1,100. My budget assures that early in the next century, there will be 3,000.

Fifth, to assure that our classrooms are truly places of learning, and to respond to what teachers have been asking us to do for years, we should say that all states and school districts must both adopt and implement sensible discipline policies.

Now, let’s do one more thing for our children. Today, too many of our schools are so old they’re falling apart, or so overcrowded students are learning in trailers. Last fall, Congress missed the opportunity to change that. This year, with 53 million children in our schools, Congress must not miss that opportunity again. I ask you to help our communities build or modernize 5,000 schools.

If we do these things--end social promotion; turn around failing schools; build modern ones; support qualified teachers; promote innovation, competition, and discipline--then we will begin to meet our generation’s historic responsibility to create 21st-century schools. ...

On Child Care

Working parents also need quality child care. So, again this year, I ask Congress to support our plan for tax credits and subsidies for working families, for improved safety and quality, for expanded after-school programs. And our plan also includes a new tax credit for stay-at-home parents, too. They need support, as well.

Parents should never have to worry about choosing between their children and their work. Now, the Family and Medical Leave Act--the very first bill I signed into law--has now, since 1993, helped millions and millions of Americans to care for a newborn baby or an ailing relative without risking their jobs. I think it’s time, with all the evidence that it has been so little burdensome to employers, to extend family leave to 10 million more Americans working for smaller companies.

Finally on the matter of work, parents should never have to face discrimination in the workplace. So I want to ask Congress to prohibit companies from refusing to hire or promote workers simply because they have children. That is not right....

On Smoking

As everyone knows, our children are targets of a massive media campaign to hook them on cigarettes. Now, I ask this Congress to resist the tobacco lobby, to reaffirm the [Food and Drug Administration’s] authority to protect our children from tobacco, and to hold tobacco companies accountable while protecting tobacco farmers.

Smoking has cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars under Medicare and other programs. You know, the states have been right about this--taxpayers shouldn’t pay for the cost of lung cancer, emphysema, and other smoking-related illnesses--the tobacco companies should. So tonight I announce that the Justice Department is preparing a litigation plan to take the tobacco companies to court--and with the funds we recover, to strengthen Medicare....

On School Safety

We must do more to keep our schools the safest places in our communities. Last year, every American was horrified and heartbroken by the tragic killings in Jonesboro, Paducah, Pearl, Edinboro, Springfield. We were deeply moved by the courageous parents now working to keep guns out of the hands of children and to make other efforts so that other parents don’t have to live through their loss.

After she lost her daughter, Suzann Wilson of Jonesboro, Ark., came here to the White House with a powerful plea. She said, “Please, please, for the sake of your children, lock up your gun. Don’t let what happened in Jonesboro happen in your town.” It’s a message she is passionately advocating every day ...

In memory of all the children who lost their lives to school violence, I ask you to strengthen the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act, to pass legislation to require child trigger locks, to do everything possible to keep our children safe.

On AmeriCorps

Now, to get the most out of your community, you have to give something back. That’s why we created AmeriCorps--our national service program that gives today’s generation a chance to serve their communities and earn money for college.

So far, in just four years, 100,000 young Americans have built low-income homes with Habitat for Humanity, helped to tutor children with churches, worked with [the Federal Emergency Management Administration] to ease the burden of natural disasters, and performed countless other acts of service .... I ask Congress to give more young Americans the chance to follow their lead and serve America in AmeriCorps.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 1999 edition of Education Week as Clinton: It’s Time To Target Accountability


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