President Clinton Speaks To American Federation Of Teachers
July 20, 1998
CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank
you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen of the AFT; Senator
Landrieu; Congressman Jefferson; Secretary Slater. Mayor Moriel
(ph), thank you for hosting this fine group of America's
teachers in this wonderful city.
To President Sandy Feldman (ph) and McElroy (ph) and your
newly elected executive -- Nat LaCoure (ph) -- and all the
officers and people who are here, let me say, when Sandy was up
here giving her introduction, my mind was racing back over lots
of events, going back to early 1992, when we first went to a
school in New York together.
(UNKNOWN): Cardozo (ph).
CLINTON: Cardozo (ph), that's right. You were there,
Now, any time I'm talking, if I mention something that gives
you an opportunity to flack for you school, you stand up and do
I won't be offended. I think you ought to be proud of what
you do and where you work and the children that you're trying to
help to prepare for tomorrow.
And you know, when you think about where we were then as a
nation and where we are now, I was so concerned, because not
only was the economy in thee doldrums, but our society was
becoming more divided. The crime rate was going up; the welfare
rolls were exploding.
There were tensions among our people.
People were looking for racial or ethnic or
religious or political reasons to blame other people for the
general problems and challenges we shared as Americans.
And one of the things that I always admired most about the
AFT was that I felt that you have always found the right balance
between being passionately devoted to public education and to
the welfare and working conditions of teachers, and
uncompromising -- uncompromising -- in your advocacy of high
standards and accountability and educational excellence for
every single American child.
Shortly before I came out here, your officers told me that
Edie Shanker (ph) had decided to give the Medal of Freedom that
I awarded to Al to the AFT for safekeeping. I love that, for it
was your legacy...
... your values that he worked so hard to serve. You take
good care of it. He earned it, and so did you.
This is a remarkable time in our country's history, a time of
prosperity and confidence and breathtaking change.
If you think about where we are now compared to where we were
on the day that I was fortunate enough to be inaugurated
president, I don't say that our administration is 100 percent
responsible for all the good things that have happened.
That would be foolish. In a free society, the
people deserve the lion's share of any change that occurs.
But I will say this: We had new ideas and new policies. We
said we would take this country in a new direction, and there
were consequences to those decisions just as there will be
consequences to the decisions of those who disagree with us if
they hold sway.
And I think every single one of you should feel a personal
measure of pride if you helped Al Gore and me win those
elections in '92 and '96 because of what has happened.
Every single one of you.
Because when you hear these statistics -- I mean, think about
this: Compared to 1992, we have 16 million new jobs and the
lowest unemployment rate in 28 years; the lowest crime rate in
25 years; the lowest percentage of our people on welfare in 29
years; the first balanced budget and surplus in 29 years; the
lowest inflation in 32 years; the highest home ownership in the
history of the country; and the smallest national government in
35 years; and the biggest investment in education in our
I am proud of that, and you should be, too.
Now, today, I want to ask you to look ahead at where we are
and what our challenges are. And I want to ask you to help me
with a lesson plan for America's future.
I know you're mom may be acquainted with such things.
I also know that this union represents people who help you in
school, who are not teachers, and I think all of them, all the
support people who are here. Thank you for your service.
We have to decide what to do with this moment.
CLINTON: And I want to talk about education and the role of
some other issues. But let me just back up and say there are
three things I want you to think about.
First of all, all these numbers and statistics that I
mentioned are very rewarding because they represent real
positive changes in real people's lives. Incomes for ordinary
people are up. Poverty is down, as Sandy said. Ninety percent
of our kids are immunized. We virtually opened the doors of
college to everyone who will work for it. I'm proud of all
But you know and I know that we face some big long-term
challenges. And I'd just like to mention a couple of them,
because I want you to talk to your students and to the parents
and to the people that you work with about them, because people
need to understand that just because times are good doesn't mean
we should all be relaxing, except if you want to go out in the
sun in New Orleans and relax -- I'm for it. But I don't want it
to be a permanent condition for the American people, because we
have big challenges facing us if we're going to go into the 21st
century with the American dream alive for everyone, with America
coming together as a community across all of our differences,
and with our country leading the world for peace and freedom and
What are they? Well, let me just mention a few of them.
No. 1, we have to save Social Security and Medicare for the
baby boom generation.
And we have to do it in a way that recognizes that they lift
millions and millions and millions of seniors out of poverty,
but that as presently constructed, it is not sustainable,
because when -- and I know (OFF-MIKE) baby boomer so I can this
-- when we retire, at present birth rates and present
immigration rates and present retirement rates, there will only
be about two people working for every person go on Social
So we have to make some changes. If we make modest
changes now, we can avoid drastic changes later. We must do
that and every American must support it. And we must find an
American unified way to do it.
Second thing we have to do is to recognize, as you can see
from this sweltering heat, that the vice president is right.
The climate of our country and our globe is changing.
The globe is warming.
And our principle contribution to it, human beings
everywhere, is that we're putting too many greenhouse gases into
the atmosphere, primarily because we insist on maintaining
Industrial Age patterns of energy use when all the technology
available indicates that you don't have to do that to grow an
So we have got to take advantage of the fact that our
children are natural environmentalists, to use them, to empower
them to help us all to find a way to save our planet, to improve
our environment even as we grow the economy.
I promise you it can be done. But it -- we've got to get
people to think differently. This is a huge education issue.
The third thing we have to do is to prove that we can bring
the benefits of this great economic recovery to all Americans,
not just to those who have it now...
... in our inner cities, in our rural areas, our farming
areas, on our Native-American reservations.
The fourth thing we have to do is to persuade the American
people that if we're going to lead the world for peace and
freedom and prosperity, we have to be far-sighted.
We have to pay our way in an interdependent world.
That means we can't walk away from our investment in the United
Nations. We can't walk away from our investment in the
International Monetary Fund.
I was just home for the weekend, and I know what a lot of
folks at home think. They think, well, why does Bill Clinton
want to spend money on the International Monetary Fund? We've
got needs here at home.
I'll tell you why: because unless we help to reform and
restore growth -- in the Asian countries, for example -- they
won't be able to buy our products. And 30 percent of our
growth, if you like these 16 million new jobs, if you like this
low unemployment, if you like the taxes that are flowing into
local government for education because of the economy --
somebody's got to buy our stuff around the world. And if they
don't have any money, they can't buy it. And if they don't have
any money, the value of their currency goes down, so their
products they sell here are cheaper. So our trade deficit goes
If you want us to grow in America, we have to grow together
with our friends and neighbors around the world. We have to be
And we've got to teach people that.
Just two other quick points. We've got to be able to live
together as one America, across all the lines that divide us.
... many of you teach in school districts where there are
children from 20, 40, 60, 80, maybe even 100 different racial
and ethnic groups, speaking dozens of different languages as
their native tongue.
This is a good thing for America in the 21st
century in a global economy, an information age...
... if we can overcome the demon of racial and ethnic and
religious hatred, which are bedeviling the world in our time --
from Bosnia and Kosovo to Rwanda, to Northern Ireland, to the
Middle East, to the conflict between Greece and Turkey, to the
difficulties between India and Pakistan.
And if you want your country to lead the world away from all
that, I can just say this: In order for America to do good
throughout the world, we have to be good at home. We have to be
Finally, the last big challenge that I think we face, big
challenge for the 21st century, is providing every single child
with world-class excellence in education.
Every child, every child.
No one, no one anywhere in the world questions that we offer
more rich quality opportunities for people to go on to college
than any other country in the world. We work very hard to open
the doors of college to everybody who will work for it.
But no one who is honest would say we don't have
serious challenges in our elementary and secondary education.
There are all kinds of different arguments about, well, what
caused it or what the problems are, what the solutions are. You
and I, by and large, agree on the solutions. But the main thing
we've got to agree on is that this is one of the five or six
challenges that will shape the America our children and
grandchildren will live in, in the 21st century.
If you do not want our country to continue to be divided
along the lines of income, to continue to grow more unequal; if
you don't want the 21st century to see an America where there
are fabulously wealthy, successful people living alongside
breathtakingly poor people, isolated in areas where opportunity
never reaches, we have to realize that if this is an information
age and if the economy is growing by ideas, then it is more
important than ever before that educational excellence be
universal. And we have to provide that.
Now, I also want to say a few words today about an issue that
may seem somewhat mundane to people who have never been in a
classroom and faced it. But America has been thinking about
it, because of all the tragedies in all the schools in the last
year or so.
And that is the whole issue of school safety, and the
critical role of a safe classroom and a safe school and a safe
schoolyard place and the work that teachers do.
Every day you work hard to broaden young minds, to unlock
their potential, to sharpen skills. You have faith in the
possibilities of our children. If you didn't, you wouldn't be
doing this, because just about everyone of you could be making
more money doing something else.
If you weren't devoted to our children, you wouldn't be doing
It keeps you in front of a chalkboard or a keyboard. It
keeps you up late at night grading papers and making lesson
plans. We have tried to be a good partner with you, as Sandy
I have loved working with you to raise standards, to increase
accountability, to improve teaching, to give schools the tools
and the flexibility they need to reach the national education
goals, to try to help make sure all of our children can read and
can log onto the Internet and can go on to college.
Now, we now have, I think, a great challenge before
us, because in spite of the fact that this agenda is clearly an
integral part of America's economic success over the next few
years, believe it or not, there are people who don't want to
continue it in Washington and some who downright are committed
to undoing it.
But I have put before the Congress an agenda to modernize our
schools, to reduce class size, to connect every classroom to the
Internet, to end social promotion but provide more funding for
after- school and summer-school programs that work to give our
children a chance...
... to give more schools in disadvantaged areas the funds and
the support they need to adopt the kind of comprehensive
approach that Chicago is pursuing with such success...
... to give more students in disadvantaged areas mentors and
the certainty in junior high school or middle school that they
can go on to college if they learn and become good citizens and
succeed in school, to provide more funds to put teachers into
underserved areas, to do everything I can to help to provide
100,000 more master teachers so that we can do what needs to be
done in every school building in the country, and to support
your efforts to improve teaching.
I salute Sandy Feldman's (ph) plan to improve
teacher quality, and I want to support your efforts.
I have always been impressed, I will say again, that the AFT
was never afraid to say that before a teacher is certified, it
is reasonable to have the demonstrated competence of the
teacher. I have always respected that, and I thank you for
But I will also say that while I have strongly supported the
testing of teachers before they're certified, I also have
strongly supported paying them once they're certified, and
... having master teachers in every school building in
America and doing the things that Sandy outlined in her
So as teachers, you're stepping up to your responsibility.
I have tried to preserve the gains of the last 5 1/2 years
and put forward an ambitious program for the future. And we've
had a lot of success working with Congress in a bipartisan way
In the balanced budget bill, as Sandy said, we've got this
huge increase in funding for education and we got the Hope
Scholarship. We got more work-study positions. We got big
increases in Pell Grants. We have, earlier than that, got a big
improvement in the student loan program to open the doors of
We've got 1,000 colleges now participating with their kids in
the America Reads program, going into your school. We've got
AmeriCorps people; almost 100,000 young people have been in
AmeriCorps. When I drove by a grade school this morning on the
way here, there were the AmeriCorps volunteers out there with
their kids holding up signs welcoming me to New Orleans. We've
been able to do these things by working together.
Now is the time for Congress to turn away from some of these
recent committee votes, where they say no to smaller classes, no
to modernized schools, no to AmeriCorps. They haven't yet said
yes to "America Reads."
I am pleased that we seem to be making some
bipartisan progress with the proposals to prepare teachers for
the classroom. But I asked Congress to support all these
They are not my ideas; they are the ideas of educators. They
are the ideas that we know work. All of them came from
I was in Philadelphia the other day where the average age of
the school building is 65 years. A lot of those buildings are
beautiful, but they need rehabilitating.
I was in Florida in a little town where there were 17 --
count them -- 17 trailers outside the major school building,
because the school population had grown so much. If you want
smaller classes, they have to be held somewhere, there have to
be teachers to walk in the classroom. We have got to do this.
This is important.
So I ask you to redouble your efforts; to reach out to all
members of Congress without regard to their party; and say,
look, if there's one thing in America -- even in Washington,
D.C., we ought to be able to put beyond partisan politics. It
should be the education of our children.
Now if you want to fight about whether you believe in
vouchers or not, fine. Let's have an argument about it. I
don't mind that.
But while we're arguing about it, don't forget this: Over 90
percent of the people are out there in those public schools, and
these ideas are good on their own merit.
And they deserve to be implemented and passed without regard
to party in Washington, D.C.
We have the money to do it. It is allocated, and
we should do it.
Now, let me also say that you know, better than anybody,
learning cannot occur unless our schools are safe and orderly
places, where teachers can teach and children can learn.
Wherever there is chaos where there should be calm, wherever
there is disorder where there should be discipline, make no
mistake about it, it's not just a threat to our classrooms and
to your mission -- it is threat to the strength and vitality of
In a recent study, 81 percent of teachers said the
worst-behaved students absorbed the most attention in school --
not the struggling students, not the striving students, the
worst-behaved. Seventy-one percent of all high-school students
said there were too many disruptive students in their own
classes. And only 13 percent of public school students said
their classmates were -- quote -- "very respectful of
Now teachers can't teach if they have to fight for respect or
fear for their safety. Students can't study if there is
disorder in a classroom.
And a disruption won't change unless there are clear strict
standards for behavior. You know, better than anyone that we
either have discipline in a classroom or we have disorder, and
too often, danger.
Hard experience has taught us this lesson all too well.
As a nation, therefore, we must recognize that
giving you the tools to have a safe, orderly classroom is
central to the mission of renewing America.
There is another lesson to be learned from all this. In this
case, it is from the overall decline in crime. And let me back
up and say one of the cruel ironies of these horrible killings
in all these states over the last year or so has been that they
have occurred against the backdrop of a dramatic drop in crime
and the first drop in juvenile crime in years and years and
Crime i because we're getting
serious about community policing, effective punishment and
Crime is dropping because whole communities, like Boston, are
taking responsibility for their streets and their neighborhoods,
and because government is giving them the support they need.
I mention Boston because they went two years and a few weeks
without a single, solitary child under the age of 18 being
killed with a gun.
That's an amazing statistic.
Now, these things do not happen by accident. They happen by
design at the grassroots level, but people must have the tools
to do the job. That's the idea behind our efforts to put
100,000 police on the street.
When I became president, violent crime had tripled in the
last 30 years, and the number of police officers had only
increased by 10 percent. I mean, you didn't have to be Einstein
to figure out that was a mathematical equation for disaster.
And the police officers told us -- we can prevent crime if
you'll give us enough police to walk the streets, to be on the
blocks, to know the kids, to know the parents, to know the store
owners, to figure out what's going on.
So, that's what we did. But if you look at what
happened in community after community, where the crime rate
dropped, they, first of all, put in place a system that said we
are going to have respect for the law. And here is the system
we're going to have to maximize respect, hold people accountable
who don't respect the law.
And guess what -- more and more people started to follow the
law in the first place, to behave as responsible citizens, to
walk away from the prospect of criminal conduct. And that's
what we tried to do for school safety. We worked hard to
tighten security to give you the tools to do that; strengthen
prevention; to toughen penalties.
We initiated this nationwide policy of zero tolerance for
guns in schools. In the '96-'97 school year, this policy
(OFF-MIKE) led to the expulsion of about 6,100 law-breaking
students. It obviously prevented countless acts of violence.
Yet, as we have seen from the recent acts of violence, we
have to do more. When I was in Springfield, Oregon, I was so
moved by what the parents of injured children said -- the
parents, in some cases, of children who were killed. The
teachers who were there talked about the necessity of doing more
and developing the right kinds of intervention strategy.
This is terribly important. And one of the things I came
here today to do is to say that in the fall, I will host the
first-ever White House conference on school safety. And I want
you to be a part of that.
We want to bring together educators and law enforcement
officers and families whose lives have been touched by these
terrible tragedies to find new solutions to this profound
Again, I ask Congress also to be our partner, and
again, I say this should not be a partisan issue.
I have proposed a juvenile crime bill to ban violent
juveniles from buying guns for life and to take other important
steps to give communities much needed support.
I've asked that in our balanced budget, $95 million be
allocated to the prevention of juvenile crime. I urge Congress
to invest in prevention.
You know when we -- when we talk, those of us who have run
for office, we all like to talk about the punishment, because
everybody has known someone who has been hurt, who has been a
victim of crime, and because we are outraged when we see
children have their lives cut short.
And I would point out that in our '94 crime bill, we did more
to stiffen punishment for crime under federal law than had ever
But you know and I know that we cannot jail our way out of
this problem. We've got to prevent more of these kids from
getting in trouble in the first place.
And -- so again, I say, this is not a Democratic or a
Republican issue. We should simply invest in prevention because
the police officers tell us it works, because the teachers tell
us it works, because the social workers tell us it works,
because the religious leaders tell us it works, because the
children themselves tell us it works.
We should be investing in the summer jobs program and the
summer- school program and the after-school program because it
We also know, by way of lessons, that the small
stuff matters, the basics matter. In most schools, it's not the
sensational acts of violence, but smaller acts of aggression,
threat, scuffles and constant backtalk that take a terrible toll
on the atmosphere of learning, on the morale of teachers, on the
attitudes of other students.
And that's why setting strict standards and enforcing them
can make a powerful difference all across America, as they are
doing in many places. And let me just give three or four
Our first effort has to be to get kids inside the schoolhouse
doors and keep them there during school hours.
Truancy is more than a warning sign; it is trouble, a gateway
to drugs, alcohol, gangs and violence. Our children will either
sit in class or stand on the streets. They'll either learn from
teachers or learn from the gang leaders on the streets.
It used to be the rule that truancy laws were enforced, that
local police knew kids and brought them back to school. But in
too many places, that has long since ceased to be the case.
Thankfully, communities again are turning their attention to
the old-fashioned remedy of enforcing the truancy law. In
Milwaukee, officers can now stop students on the street during
school hours. In Boston, where more than a quarter of the
public school students were absent three weeks or more this past
school year, they now have a strict new promotion policy. If
you don't attend, you don't advance.
Other cities are forming truancy task forces -- a united
front of schools, social services, community police, to keep our
children in school and out of trouble.
This issue's important.
A teacher's day must sometimes seem very long. But we know
the school day lasts precious few hours, and there's no time to
The other thing I -- next thing I'd like to say is when the
kids are there, they need to feel free, and they need to feel
free of danger going to and from school. That's one of the
ideas behind this incredible wave of enthusiasm across the
country for school uniforms.
When I spoke about school uniforms in my 1996 State of the
Union address, besides making half the kids in America mad at
me, it struck a lot of people as an idea long out of date. And
it was just gathering steam in places like Long Beach,
But in the years since, I have been heartened by the flood of
interest -- from New York to Houston, from Dade County to
Chicago, school districts are adopting school uniform policies.
And they're finding ways to do it in ways that give the children
and the parents and the teachers all a say in how they do it,
and that don't put poor kids that are disadvantaged when they
can't afford the uniforms.
But students have told me -- and I talked to a lot of
students about this in schools that have uniform policies. When
one student is no longer obsessed by another student's sneakers
or designer jacket, and where students are focused not on
appearances but on learning, crime and violence go down,
attendance and learning go up. And I am proud of the support
you have given to those of you who have done that.
The next thing I'd like to say -- and I know you believe
this, because you applauded earlier when I mentioned it -- is
that the responsibility that we adults have for our kids doesn't
end when the last school bell rings.
After school, an awful lot of children's parents are still
working, and there's nobody home to either supervise them there
or know where they are or where they're going when they leave
A lot of our kids get in trouble after school, and
youth crime is at its peak during the unsupervised hours of 3:00
to 6:00. That's why I have said that our schools should remain
open, to become community learning centers where children are
safe and can learn and grow.
In this budget for 1999, for next year, I have proposed a
significant expansion in our investment for before- and
after-school programs. And for the later hours, when streets
become darker and more dangerous, I have often urged communities
to install curfews, to follow the example of New Orleans, where
Mayor Moriel (ph) is here with us today, put in place
community-based curfews with very impressive results, in no
small measure because the children are also taken if they
violate curfew to somebody who can help them if they've got a
problem and support them and get them back on the right path.
But these are the things that we have to do if we expect you to
have a safe learning environment.
I should also say that I think that the character education
programs that our education secretary, Dick Riley, has done so
much to help implement across the country are a positive force
for a more disciplined school environment, where the little
nagging, terrible problems don't occur.
So we're going to have this conference in the fall on school
violence. I want the AFT involved. I want the teachers who
know what the problems are to participate. But I want to
encourage everyplace to adopt anti-truancy efforts, to consider
school uniforms, to look at the curfew issue, to look at
character education programs, to look to a new approach to
restoring discipline in our schools and order in our children's
We can do that. The three R's of the AFT -- responsibility,
respect, results -- that's what school discipline is all about.
In closing, let me say I am always struck by how
every challenge in American education has been solved by
somebody somewhere. Therefore, I am always frustrated that we
have not yet found a way to make sure when somebody somewhere
solves a problem, we cannot model that and make sure it's solved
by everybody, everywhere.
That is one of the things that the AFT has been devoted to --
finding what works, developing a systematic approach, trying to
get it done everywhere. And it's one thing America needs
desperately in this area of school discipline, school order and
Again, I say, I am very proud to be your partner in building
a 21st century America that is leading the world to peace and
freedom and prosperity, an America in which every child is a
responsible citizen, with unparalleled opportunity, in a
community that revels in its diversity, that is bound together
in our wonderful ongoing effort to form a more perfect union.
You, the educators of our nation, are the architects of that
21st century America. Build well.
Thank you very much, and God bless you.