What Really Matters in American Education
Speech by Secretary Riley, September 23, 1997

Good morning. I am pleased to be back in Washington after completing the first leg of my annual "America Goes Back to School" campaign. In the last few weeks, I have visited with parents & teachers & students in about a dozen states from Alaska to Florida including Wyoming, Colorado, & Ohio.

I find these trips very worthwhile. I always come back to Washington with a much better sense of what really matters & what is really going on in the classroom. I want to make some comments about my impressions & then speak to several of the issues in the background paper that we are releasing today entitled, "What Really Matters."

One of the strongest impressions I have is that we have some very crowded schools. Right now we have 52.2 million young people in our schools, a new national record. I was in Florida on Thursday & Friday, & I can tell you that the school construction issue is alive & kicking. I believe the Congress needs to revisit this issue within a balanced budget framework.

A second impression is that a new American consensus has now developed about how to improve education. It has taken us over a decade since Ted Bell issued his report, "A Nation at Risk" to develop this consensus but everywhere I go I see the core elements of this consensus being put in place.

There is a growing emphasis, for example, on early childhood & the importance of pre-k & kindergarten for all children. I attended the President's Conference on Brain Research last year & I can tell you that the research is really galvanizing people.

A second element is a commitment to high standards linked to challenging assessments. The American people recognize that progress is only going to happen if we make sure that every child has mastered the basics once & for all. That's the third element; a clear focus on the fundamentals. This is a very conservative idea so it always surprises me that some on the right attack the President's proposal for voluntary national tests in the basics of reading & math. As W. Edwards Deming, a leading management expert said, "You can't improve something you can't measure."

The President is on a national crusade to lift up American education starting with these two basics. This is why 79 % of all Americans support these voluntary national tests according to the latest Wall Street Journal poll, & why the American people have made education the number one issue that should concern the federal government.

I believe that the two voluntary national tests in reading & math, coupled with our strong investment in education, can shake-up the status-quo & help drive American education forward.

As I travel around the country I see 4 other elements to this new education consensus falling into place. These include a stronger focus on more parental involvement; teacher quality; a greater investment in technology; & growing recognition -- even among young people -- that taking the tough core courses pays off.

Another element to this consensus is the willingness of school leaders to get on with the job when it comes to turning around failing schools. We know how to fix failing schools, & we have a new & tougher breed of superintendents who are willing to hold people accountable; Paul Vallas in Chicago, Rudy Crew in New York City, Bill Rojas in San Francisco, David Hornbeck in Philadelphia -- just to name a few -- are all "no nonsense" leaders who are committed to turning around failing schools, ending social promotion & raising standards.

They are not willing to put up with mediocrity or failure & neither am I. If a school is failing, don't let it drift. You have to be willing to close it down or reconstitute it. If a principal is slow to get the message, superintendents & school boards need to be willing to replace them.

If teachers are burnt out, counsel them to leave the profession in a fair but speedy process or make sure they get the extra help they need from master teachers -- what educators call peer review. We know how to fix failing schools, & as this report indicates, there are school districts that are making things happen.

The new American consensus on how to improve education is a pragmatic, mainstream consensus, & we are starting to see steady & positive results. Math & science scores have been rising for a decade. SAT scores are up, particularly in math, & ACT scores have gone up in 4 of the last 5 years. And one-third of this year's college freshmen class took Advanced Placement courses.

Public education is beginning to improve. We are not where we want to be, but we are headed in the right direction. This is why we need to stay focused on what really matters & not get side-tracked by divisive issues like vouchers. Let's remember that almost 90% of all of our young people go to public schools & the great majority of our public schools are successful.

I can tell you this -- if you gave the American people a choice today between using federal dollars to renovate & build new public schools or using public tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers, there would be no question how the American people would vote.

It could cost roughly $15 billion just to pay the tuition of the 5 million children already enrolled in private schools in this nation. The last thing we should be doing at a time when so many of our schools are bursting at their seams is to be draining public tax dollars from public education to subsidize private education.

The President in his Saturday radio address indicated his determination to veto any legislation that includes the Gorton Amendment on block granting or the Goodling Amendment that would block the voluntary national tests. I will also urge the President to veto any legislation that includes the DC voucher proposal now moving through Congress or the Coverdell IRA proposal -- which is a voucher by another name.

I am not satisfied with the status-quo when it comes to public education, but I will not stand by & see public education run down every chance that some people get. The American people believe in public education & that's where they want to make the improvements.

This is why the President has made education his top priority & why he released $40 million in charter schools grants last Saturday. Charter schools are creative schools that are making things happen but they are still public schools that are accountable.

Vouchers are wrong for many reasons & we need to be clear about what is at stake. Vouchers undermine a 200-year American commitment to the common school -- a commitment that has helped America keep faith with our democratic ideals & become a beacon of light for people all over the world.

Let's remember that public education has always been & continues to be the open door to American success & good citizenship -- the American way to achievement & freedom. Vouchers would begin the unraveling of this uniquely American fabric -- the common public school that is open to all & gives everyone a fair chance to succeed.

Every state in this nation provides for a free, public education & a great majority of them have written this idea into their state constitution. The ideal that every child in this country has a constitutional right to a free, public education is not to be dismissed lightly. I do not think that voucher proponents have thought long & hard about the very negative consequences of "balkanizing" public education.

The background paper we are releasing today notes that vouchers would reduce public accountability & make private schools less private & less independent -- & make parochial schools less parochial.

There is little certainty that religious schools that now make up 79% of all private schools would be willing to give up their religious mission in order to overcome constitutional barriers.

The paper also notes that private schools simply do not have the capacity to absorb additional students, much less those children with special disabilities.

I worry, too, that those who support vouchers have become almost myopic in their insistence that public education is failing across-the-board. Tell that to the parents in Montgomery County, or in Louisville, Kentucky or in Charlotte, North Carolina or in countless school districts across the country where parents & community leaders support public education.

Two years ago, Money magazine did a survey of the top 100 school districts in the country. The survey found out that the two defining factors that led to the creation of what Money magazine called "super schools" were community & family involvement, not income or family status. Vouchers, on the other hand, divide communities.

The background paper also provides research evidence -- & this is very important -- that the most important choice students can make is not the type of school they go to -- public or private -- but the academic courses they take.

This is the first choice that parents should be making -- making sure their children take the tough academic courses like algebra, geometry, chemistry & other core courses. This is why I am always perplexed that voucher advocates almost never talk about how to improve reading, how to improve teaching, how to raise academic standards or how to fix crumbling schools.

Their solution for every issue that confronts American education is vouchers. It is a very simplistic world view -- a silver bullet solution -- & it is just dead wrong. If a school is failing, the solution isn't to give scholarships to 50 children & leave 500 behind, but to fix the whole school.

The current $7 million DC voucher initiative in Congress, which offers vouchers for 2,000 low income D.C. public school students, is a case in point. It targets 2,000 children & leaves another 75,000 behind. Is this fair?

If Congress has an additional $7 million to spend on education in the District, let me tell you how it could be spent. You can spend it to support additional reading programs. We have already recruited 450 work-study college students from six local colleges to be reading tutors. Or you can spend it & help a lot more young people get ahead. Let me tell you how.

Under my proposal $3.5 million would be used to match up 58 schools with proven education reformers like Robert Slavin's "Success for All" program at John Hopkins University -- the New American Schools effort -- or the Laboratory for Success at Temple University.

These are programs with a solid track record that are specifically designed to turn around failing inner schools. This effort would impact 29,000 District children -- not 2,000 children -- but 29,000 children . Each of these programs is based on solid research that will help local schools redesign themselves with a program of high academic standards, professional teacher development, & real parent involvement.

We need to respect home rule here in the District & let every parent in D.C. know that all of their children deserve the best education possible. Our challenge is not to help 2,000 students move out, but to help all 78,000 students in the District move-up academically.

My proposal would also set aside $3.5 million to support 70 new after-school programs in the public schools to help 7,000 children. The FBI tells us that the after-school hours -- from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. -- are the most dangerous for children. Let's give these young people safe-havens where they can be safe & get the extra tutoring help they need.

Does public education need to be improved? Of course it does & there is a consensus about how it can be done. Public tax dollars ought to be spent to improve reading & math, to improve the skills of America's teachers, to get computers into the classroom, to renovate & build new schools -- to make sure that high school diplomas really mean something.

I believe that if we focus in on what we agree on & what really matters rather than on what divides us -- we can make the next ten years the "golden era" of American education. The American people have made the improvement of public education a national priority. We know how to fix our schools. Now is the time to roll-up our sleeves & get it done.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley