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Excellence in Education: Our Children Come First

Location: Spartanburg, SC

The 20th century has been called the American Century -- and rightfully so. America defeated tyranny in two world wars and the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. We sent a man to the moon and led a technological revolution that is changing the way we live, work and learn. The people of burgeoning democracies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, yearning to breath free, look to our example. America is the most successful democracy the world has ever seen and remains the greatest force for good on earth.

But, I worry that we are failing to provide too many of our children with the education they must have to make this new Century a second American Century.

Today, American students are trailing the world in math and science. Scores on college entrance tests -- SAT's -- are still nearly sixty points lower than they were in 1960.

We can no longer have confidence that our children are learning to master even the most basic skill: reading. A recent survey reported that less than one-third of fourth- graders in America are "proficient readers." Forty million Americans are unable to fill out a job application or read a menu in a restaurant, much less comprehend a computer menu.

It is a national disgrace that many American children don't possess a basic understanding of America's cultural and historical traditions. According to recent reports, many high school seniors are unable to identify the significance of our basic political documents and the most important events of American history.

If we are to extend American greatness in this new Century; if we are to keep alive the American dream for our children; and if we are to remain the last, best hope of mankind, we must provide our children with an education that befits a great nation.

We value and admire our nation's teachers who have answered a high calling. They are patriots who serve a cause greater than their self-interest. But our teachers are as cheated by a failed educational system as are the children it is supposed to serve. The consequences of this failure are severe.

History instructs us that only through education can we vanquish the evils that ignorance spawn. Only through education can we advance the human condition.

My friends, freedom and self-governance are about making choices. We can choose the status quo. We can allow the needs of our children to remain subordinate to the desires of self-serving union bosses. We can yield to those who hold their power and influence more dear than the success of our children and who recognize no difference between a good teacher and one who should be doing something else.

We can continue to be diverted by social scientists who concoct feel good alibis for children who are under-performing rather than challenge them to meet standards they are most certainly capable of achieving.

We can be content to hold our children hostage to the priorities of special interests, consigning them to a future beneath their dreams, their dignity, and their ability. Or, we can choose reform. My friends, I choose reform.

As President, I will fight for our children's future. We will spark an educational renaissance that has a single measure of success--the improved educational performance of our children so that each and every one of them can stake their rightful claim to the American dream.

We must begin that crusade by insisting on high academic standards. I learned in the military that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary achievement if they are provided fair opportunity and inspired by high expectations. That's why it must be a top national priority for every state to devise education goals, benchmarks and tangible measures of success.

We must make it every educator's cause to teach to those standards, and every students' mission to achieve them.

Some believe that educational standards should be established by the federal government. I do not. Education must remain under the control of state and local authority that is closer and more responsive to the needs of parents and students. States are better able to develop appropriate standards than a one-size fits all national approach over which partisan politics and federal paternalism would most certainly rein supreme.

You have a good example of that here in South Carolina. You brought your best minds together in a partnership between government, teachers, parents and the private sector. You formed a commission to develop high standards of accountability, to develop a way of measuring the performance of schools. And then, based on that study, the South Carolina State Legislature passed the Education Accountability Act which addressed the unique needs of this great state. It was a bipartisan effort. And that's the way it should be done across America.

My friends, we must never let our national expectations or our state and local standards be corrupted by those who preach the faithless gospel of mediocrity—those who would lower the bar of academic performance so that no one need be held accountable for failure.

And let's reject the snake oil peddled by professional excuse makers that certain students just aren't capable because of who they are or where they're from. That is an insidious form of bigotry that has no place in our society.

My friends, excellence must be our standard, and excellent student performance our measure of success. That means our schools must focus on expanding minds rather than protecting union jobs and coddling student egos. As less than an "A" student myself, I know that the rigors of learning can be humbling. But, self-esteem is not created by lowering expectations. Self-esteem is created by achieving high standards. Just as we must have high standards for our students, we must have high standards for our educators, because for every one teacher who can't teach, there will be hundreds of children who won't learn.

I cherish our nation's teachers. But we demoralize our excellent teachers by paying them without regard to their ability. We must recognize that the most important measure of a teacher's merit is the performance of his or her students, and we should encourage school boards that link pay for teachers to their success in the classroom.

One way to improve teacher performance has been proposed by Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Lisa Graham Keegan, who is with us today. Lisa is a premier national leader in the education reform movement. She has proposed the use of "master teachers" in our schools, full time professionals who work with teachers to improve their skills, monitor instructor and student performance, and make sure that curriculum is strong. Like all young people, a young teacher needs a role-model and the feedback a master teacher can provide. A highly compensated master teacher in every school would provide a vital incentive for good teachers to remain in the profession rather than having to leave for financial reasons.

The fundamental principal that student success matters above all else should lead us to embrace both school vouchers and the charter school movement. The most important thing we can do, my friends, to improve education in America is to commit ourselves to the cause of school choice. The greatness of our free enterprise system is based on the undeniable principle that competition produces excellence. It's time that competition be allowed to work its wonders in the educational arena.

I have proposed a three year national test of school vouchers so that lower and middle income families will have the same opportunity that wealthier families have —to send their children to the school of their choice in their own community. Our children deserve the best education we can provide to them whether that learning takes place in a public, private or parochial school.

Governor Bush and I have a serious difference of opinion on the issue of school choice. He believes we should pay for school vouchers by taking money already dedicated to public education. I believe we should fund choice by eliminating corporate welfare doled out to the oil and gas industry, ethanol giants and sugar barons. By ending these subsidies we could take the savings and provide school vouchers to nearly one million children from the neediest families in the poorest performing schools.

Governor Bush believes we should wait three years to liberate students from poor schools, I think we should begin immediately. Every year of a child's education is precious. Let's not consign students to three more years of failure before we take the urgent action that we all know is needed now.

Why has school choice been so difficult to achieve? My friends, it's the corrupting influence of narrow special interests. As Dr. Bill Bennett said in the "De-Valuing of America:

"...much of the education establishment, which includes the unions and other professional education organizations, opposes every commonsense reform measure: competency testing for teachers, opening the teaching profession to knowledgeable individuals who have not graduated from schools of education, performance-based pay, holding educators accountable for how much children learn, and end to tenure...and a parental choice of schools. The are reforms most Americans endorse..."

Teachers unions, whose agenda is greased with millions of dollars they dole out in soft money campaign contributions, are threatened by school choice. If parents have a choice, mediocrity or worse will be exposed and that's uncomfortable for the entrenched interests who betray not only our children, but excellent teachers as well.

School choice will help not only parents and their children, it will help good teachers who will be able to start their own schools, effect innovations and imaginative new ways to teach and learn. School placement decisions will be based on quality of education and not geographic or bureaucratic dictate.

Al Gore opposes school vouchers. He defends the status quo and reaps the money, the organization and the votes of entrenched interests. In order to appease union bosses, President Clinton and Vice President Gore are perfectly willing to keep, poor, underprivileged children locked in failing public schools—while they send their own kids to the most exclusive, most expensive private schools in Washington, D.C.

I will change the status quo, because the status quo is the enemy of our children.

Early in the last century Theodore Roosevelt busted the oil and railroad monopolies that held America captive and served their interests at the expense of the national interest. At the beginning of this new century it's time to break the grip of the education monopoly that serves the interests of union bosses at the expense of our children. It's time to bust the education monopoly.

My friends, I will return power and control of education back to parents and local schools where it belongs.

Governor Bush and Vice-President Gore fail to understand the crushing burden imposed on our local schools by bureaucracy. This year, the federal government will spend about $14.8 billion on elementary and secondary education. This money comes with reams of regulations and paperwork requirements. Even though federal funding represents only 7 percent of total spending on elementary and secondary education—in some cases the bureaucratic strings attached account for nearly 50 percent of state and local administrative costs. The United States is the only developed nation in which a majority of the people employed in education are not teachers.

It's time to get the federal money intended for elementary and secondary education into the classroom where it's needed. My approach to improving our schools is different from both Vice-President Gore and Governor Bush. They would continue to use federal funds to require local communities to meet federally approved standards and they would both continue to allow bureaucrats to determine how federal funds should be spent. That is not the path to reform, it's a promise of continued failure.

In contrast, I plan to bypass education bureaucracies and send school aid directly to schools in the form of block grants, so that every school can use precious resources in the manner that best meets their most pressing local needs. And I'll insist that this money makes it to the classroom, and is not diverted to bureaucrats, -- and that accountability is measured not in federal paperwork, but by improved performance.

Let's take our education system away from federal bureaucrats and put the power back in the hands of someone who knows your child's name.

And let's make exceptional examples of those fine teachers who succeed. In addition to block grants with no bureaucratic strings attached, I will make available $500 million a year to be used for merit pay programs designed in our local communities for those states that choose to participate in the program and are prepared to match our commitment dollar for dollar.

But let's go further, I will challenge the private sector, which needs better qualified workers in this high tech age, to join us, dollar for dollar, in this commitment to reward excellent teachers. This isn't a federal mandate on private enterprise or on the states, it is a national challenge issued by the American people for the sake of our children. It will help us keep good teachers in the classroom, and, again, keep your child's education in the hands of someone who knows your child's name.

That's also why I support school choice and why I have proposed a tax plan that expands the power of American families to save and invest in their children's future. I propose doubling the amount families can invest in Education Savings Accounts. In addition, I will create a new Family Security Account that allows families to save up to $6,000 per year without paying taxes on the income if it is held for at least one year—investment that can be used for the purpose of their choice, including education.

My friends, we all know that the most important learning takes place at home. Parents are a child's first teacher and home is the most important school. Home is where we learn, or sadly where we fail to learn, the value of hard work, respect, and the difference between right and wrong.

I will use the bully pulpit of the Presidency to help families protect children from the ceaseless assault of violence-obsessed entertainment that has sacrificed patriotism to greed.

I am proud to have helped lead the successful fight for the television v-chip to help parents screen inappropriate programming. Today we're fighting to ensure that children who have access to the Internet in libraries and schools are protected from on-line pornography. And we're fighting to give parents the information they need to defend the children from those who prey on their innocence to make a buck.

America has a uniform labeling system for food to help parents make better choices about what goes into our children's bodies. It's time we label the content of all entertainment media—a uniform system that informs parents if programming contains violence, sexually explicit material or inappropriate language so that we can make more informed decisions about what goes into our children's minds and hearts.

Their's are the minds and hearts that will shape the nation's tomorrows. There's little room for knowledge when we fill their minds with trash we casually dismiss as entertainment.

We must also empower teachers to help parents shape our children's character by properly enforcing discipline in the classroom without fearing a lawsuit. Insisting on responsible behavior in school is not a crime, it's our duty.

And the first rule of responsible behavior is this: mothers and fathers are entitled to know beyond all doubt that their children are safe in the public schools of America. Today, teachers are buried in regulations that paralyze their ability to stop school violence.

When a violent child is identified, when teachers find a child in the classroom who poses a threat to the safety of others, there should be no federal rule or regulation that hamstrings teachers from taking immediate action. Teachers in South Carolina and all across America must have the power to get violent juveniles out of the classroom. The safety of our children must be priority number one.

But responsible behavior also is a product of our most important responsibility: character building. We send our children to school to learn the basic skills of education, but schools have another vital role, to help promote the building of "character," -the basic principles of behavior that define a decent human being and a good citizen. As Abigail Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy, "Great learning and superior abilities, should you ever possess them, will be of little value and small estimation, unless Virtue, Honor, Truth and Integrity are added to them."

During a visit to an Arizona Charter School, I had the privilege of being accompanied by Secretary Bill Bennett. We walked into a classroom and on the teacher's desk was Dr. Bennett's Book of Virtues. It wasn't a set-up. The teacher was teaching the virtue of the month—honesty. She was asking her students why honesty is important, and why we should always tell the truth. That teacher should be commended for knowing all the knowledge in the world can have no good purpose if it is possessed by children who lack a strong sense of honor and integrity.

"Do not lie, cheat or steal," my parents taught me, "and always treat others as you would have them treat you." If at the end of my life, it is said of me, that despite my many failings I tried, more often than not, to do what I believed was the right thing than the credit is due to the morals I first learned at home; morals that were also taught to me by a wise and gifted teacher a long, long time ago.

Most of us can remember a time when our school days would begin with the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, a daily acknowledgement of our unity and common duty to the larger cause of country. Schools, as Jefferson advised, should teach young people the duties of citizenship. Unfortunately, we have lost sight of the civic function our schools should play.

We need to teach our children that they are indeed a part of something much larger and more enduring than themselves. When our children appreciate the proud legacy of Americans, they will become even more committed to our country's values, the values of freedom.

Love of country -- a phrase too often unheard in this cynical age -- elevates the individual. It replaces cynicism and selfishness with the more enduring virtues of service and constancy to a higher purpose. But you cannot love what you do not know. Let's teach our school children about the greatest political experiment in human history -- its ideals, successes and failures. Let's teach our children about America, the lantern of freedom to all humanity.

As President, I will protect the power of parents, state and local authorities to do just that. I will appoint judges who interpret rather than make law, and who don't divine from our Constitution non-existent prohibitions on basic rights such as voluntary school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. That's what giving you back your government is all about.

I often ask young Americans at the start of their adult lives to take up a new challenge, a new patriotic challenge, to join together to defeat the cynicism that so many Americans, especially the young, feel about public life and to help restore to Americans a sense of noble purpose.

This is such an extraordinary time to be alive. Yet cynicism and boredom deny young people the conviction that there is a purpose beyond materialism to being an American. To encourage them to be patriots, we must first convince them that there are great causes left to serve.

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and all glory was self glory. But no more. For in a difficult moment later in life, I learned how dependent I was on others, but neither they nor the cause they serve made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself. Nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause larger than yourself; something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.

We should use every resource we have to recall our children to the faith that has made America the greatest force for good on earth. Let us prove once again, that people who are free to act in their own interests will conceive their interests in an enlightened way, and will gratefully accept the obligation of freedom to make of our power and wealth a civilization for the ages—a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.

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