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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 20, 1997
                             PRESS BRIEFING BY 

The Briefing Room

1:12 P.M. EDT

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you so much. I just have returned from traveling with the President to Brazil, and some of you were there, and I'm here today to release a major report and also to brief you on the week ahead -- this is a very important week, as you know for education -- on the President's education agenda.

The President, as you know, used his Saturday morning radio address to praise a bipartisan effort to support charter school legislation that is now moving through the Congress. He also used the radio address to endorse another bipartisan legislative initiative that is being led by Congressman John Porter and Congressman David Obie to fixing failing schools. We know how to fix failing schools, and the Porter-Obie initiative is targeted funding to help get that job done.

Now, today we're releasing a major report entitled, "Mathematics Equal Opportunity." That conveys three powerful messages: first, that young people who go on to college, by overwhelming numbers -- 83 percent -- take the serious math courses like algebra I and geometry. Second, that taking these gate-keeping courses is especially important for low-income students. Seventy-one percent of low-income students who took algebra I and geometry went on to college, compared to 27 percent of low-income students who did not take these courses.

Now, I just met with a group of young people from Prince George's County who were part of the College Board-sponsored Equity 2000 Initiative to get more young people to take algebra early. These young people have gotten the message that getting ready for college is their responsibility, and that means taking the serious math courses.

But we need to make sure that everyone gets this message. Only 63 percent of all young people take algebra and geometry, and only 43 percent of low-income students take these math courses. And that's precisely why the President has called for voluntary national tests in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. I assure you that these tests will shake up the status quo and will make things happen.

The third message of this report is that taking the right courses is more important than what type of school you attend, whether it's public or private. The latter point, I think, deserves some attention. Many voucher proponents argue that giving parents public tax dollars to send their children to private school is the key to educational renewal.

This report says there is a much more important choice that's being overlooked entirely, and that is the choice of courses. That is a choice, also, and a very important one. Taking the right courses matters a lot more in terms of going to college than whether your school is private, public, or parochial. There are very good schools in all categories, as we know, all across the country and mediocre schools and others that need a lot of help. But the type school that a child attends turns out under these numbers not to be as significant in terms of going to college as to the choice of courses they take.

Now, let me go on and tell you a little bit about the rest of the week, then I will respond to questions. Tomorrow, the President will meet with college and university leaders who have endorsed his America Reads challenge. We have thousands of energetic college students signed up to be reading tutors and ready to go, and we're excited about that.

We also want the Congress to act on the President's request for legislation. I'm concerned that the House is starting to get stuck in the usual partisan rut and losing sight of what is really important in education. I think it's a sad day when a reading initiative, a reading initiative, becomes a political pawn because some members of Congress do not support the President's call for voluntary national tests in reading and math.

Now, making sure that all of our young people are literate is a grand goal that has full support of the American people. Congress needs to fulfill its part of the bargain. Let's remember that the reading initiative was part of the budget agreement. And for his part, Vice President Gore, then, will be visiting Louisiana State University and give a major address on race and education at Southern University Law Center.

And on Wednesday, I will join Larry Summers, who is the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, at a press conference with Representative Charlie Rangel to once again reaffirm the administration's strong opposition to the Coverdell IRA-education proposal. The Coverdell proposal is bad tax policy. It is outside the balanced budget framework, and it has little if anything to do with improving public education.

On Thursday, the President, the Vice President, the First Lady and several members of the Cabinet, including Donna Shalala and myself, will participate in the White House Child Care Conference. Then on Friday, both the President and the Vice President will once again focus on education. The President will meet with several hundred teachers who are part of the effort surrounding the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The President's goal, as you've heard, is to have 100,000 board-certified teachers in the next 10 years.

For his part, Vice President Gore will announce a new public-private partnership to match computers donated from federal agencies to low-income schools. Now, this is a very busy week for the administration when it comes to education, and that's the way it should be. Education is President Clinton's number one priority, and we need to pick up the pace in order to get all of America's children ready for the 21st century.

Education matters to parents all over America, and the President is determined to get things done. The President's education agenda is comprehensive and it gets to the heart of the issues that need to be resolved to improve American education -- things like higher standards, better-trained teachers, safe schools, computers in the classroom, more accountability, more public school choices, and an absolute commitment to making sure that all of our children -- all of our children -- have mastered the basics once and for all.

My biggest concern is that the Congress is fiddling at the margins and not focusing on these essential and central issues that define American education. The President wants some action and I think that the American people want to see some movement as well. The administration is prepared to work with the Congress in a bipartisan way, but we do need to get on with the business of improving American education.

Now I will be happy to respond to any questions.

Q Secretary Riley, is the President still committed to vetoing the D.C. appropriations bill if there are these vouchers included in there?

SECRETARY RILEY: And we just got back from South America, you and I, and I'm not positive if there's been any statement in the last day or so. As I recall, certainly senior staff has indicated that they would recommend that the President veto that if that measure is in there, and I think that's where the status is right now.

Q Could you explain in your own words, obviously, why poor children in the District of Columbia would be denied the opportunity to go to a better private parochial school or to go to a suburban school, that the President would take this opportunity away from 2,000 poor kids in the District of Columbia?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I would be glad to. First of all, we're into trying to help solve problems, to build better schools, to help states and school districts and schools get better. The idea of giving someone a ticket out of the school solves no problems whatsoever. It is a non-solution to major problems. We know what to do to improve schools. We could take that same $7 million that they propose to come in and pay for vouchers for 2,000 children and impact in a very significant way probably as many as 40,000 children. Having school reform measures like the Slavins program and Comers program and others, and new American schools, all of those efforts that are there waiting to come in -- we're doing that, by the way, in a number of elementary schools here in Washington, D.C., and I think we're seeing some real positive results.

So what do you do? You pull 2,000 kids off, and who decides who it's going to be and where they're going to go? They'll be going to some -- perhaps many of them -- to a parochial school, a religious school. So the answer that they have in there is some governmental body appointed by the House and Senate and the President comes in and says this religious school is all right, this one isn't. Or do they say all of them are all right? Or who is to judge? Once you get into that judging process, you have made them public. That doesn't help private and parochial education. I strongly support quality private and parochial schools. But the idea of siphoning people off to an unidentified place chosen by public officials to me distorts the great mix we have now with public, private and parochial. Now, the idea of improving the schools in Washington, D.C. is very important, and all of us ought to be into it, especially those of us in the federal government. And we are, ourselves, into it and we are prepared to get as much into it as the Congress would enable us to.

We think that we could really make a big difference, and that is, as I say, beginning to happen. But vouchers would in no way solve any of the problems in the Washington schools.

Q Mr. Secretary, why is it okay for the President to threaten to veto the education appropriations bill, but it's outrageous, in your view, for Congressman Goodling to threaten the America Reads program over the national standards and tests policy dispute with the administration?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, you know, you have a reading proposal that I think everyone is ready to get busy on. We have these college students that are ready, we've got grandparents and senior citizens, we've got teenagers -- everybody is excited about the reading program. And to say that somehow it's going to help education by holding that up or holding it hostage because the President wants to have a voluntary testing program tied to NAEP -- NAEP is in all 50 states now, it's a sample test. We're simply saying to make the sample test individual so a parent can see how well their child is doing in very basic skills -- not in controversial subjects; we're talking about reading in the 4th grade and math in the 8th grade with algebra, just like this study says is so important.

So we think that's a very clear, clear issue and to tie then the reading measure to that is certainly not any way in the world to interpret that as being helpful to education. Then, when you look at vouchers, in my judgment, vouchers are harmful to public education. I think they've harmful to private and parochial education, too, as I've just said. You need -- something that you think is harmful to public education I think you should veto, and that's what I would advise the President to do.

Q Secretary Riley, in terms of the economics of a family budget, if vouchers were to go through as they've been proposed in various forms, could they ever provide a school opportunity to a very poor family that would need to use only the voucher to finance the education of their child, or would vouchers even, under the best of circumstances, only be a subsidy to families that are already better off?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I think that's a very good question and, of course, the answer would be mixed. Some families would be totally dependent on the voucher, they would have certain serious limitations of choices then as to what the voucher would afford. Others who could afford private school can make a very good argument that if you're going to give the person sitting next to me a voucher, then I'm entitled to one, too -- that person might be poor, also.

So, I mean, you start getting into this very mixed up and confusing interrelationship; you're mixing up public and private, and religion. It's clear to me that if you are a very poor person and you are uneducated, and you are subject to entrepreneurs and you have a voucher for $3,200, that, too, worries me as to who could convince you to come to their school, or whatever. I think the whole scheme is just replete with problems and, as I say, I think it is harmful to the public schools and the private schools, also.

Q Mr. Secretary, I have a question about this report that you're putting out today. It's sort of a chicken and egg question. Doesn't it seem common-sensical that students who plan to go to college would take algebra and geometry and students who don't would not, and so that's what your study shows, rather than showing if you take algebra and geometry, that somehow propels you to go to college?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I think that's right if you had children making adult choices very early. And the problem is, we need in the school systems in the states and the school districts and the schools need to let children know very early that we expect more of them. We expect them to think about college.

An awful lot of kids are either told or signaled at a very young age that they're not college material, that's for someone else, way before they have had a chance to prepare themselves to go to college. So I think the schools need to take all young people and make them think better of themselves and make them have higher expectations about what they can do.

And then when they approach middle school, we do very well on the early basics. The TIMSS test 4th grade showed we were second in the world only to Korea in science -- in the 4th grade. That's poor children, wealthy children -- to hold this very diverse, large country.

Then you get on up into the 8th grade; we drop down to where we're just about barely average. So we're very high in the 4th and we drop down to about average in the 8th grade.

So what happens between the 4th and the 8th? Well, in math, our observation is -- and some of these studies are showing it -- we just kind of continue on with arithmetic, and let's wait -- you might, can't handle anything more than that. Of course, we used to, unfortunately, have tracks into general math, or whatever, which was a ticket to nowhere.

So what we think is that counselors, people who are planning for schools' curriculum, course work and so forth in the 7th and 8th grade should realize the very serious importance for all children taking algebra in the 8th grade. If they do, it then opens up the 9th grade for geometry. And then if they want to go on to advanced math, the door is wide open to do that. If they don't take algebra in the 8th grade, they get on into high school and it's amazing how that just pulls the curtain down on their future. We think that's very good information.

But to say that a young child who is planning, themselves, to go to college so they choose to take algebra is probably right, but then there's another 75 percent of the children out there who should be told that if they work hard, if they take these tough courses, they, too, can go to college.

Q Mr. Secretary, what significant opposition is there to broadening the offering of algebra in the 8th grade, and how does that in any way relate to the President's push for national student tests?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, it relates a lot. First of all,, there's no real opposition, but only 25 percent of American 8th graders have had algebra. And in Japan it's 100 percent. There's a reason for that. The Japanese have very clearly figured that out, the very thing that this longitudinal study shows. So we think that is very, very important to get that 25 percent to 100 percent. That's one thing.

And then you ask how does it connect up with the President's test? It's very clear. The test in the 8th grade is tied to NAEP. NAEP then has algebra and some geometric principles in the 8th grade test. That's what the sample test is now. It's not like we're adding anything new. But then, obviously, if the test then is a national test, states decide to take it, school districts decide to take it, then they'll say we've got to prepare these children to be able to take algebra in the 8th grade. And they should. And that's then -- we see a very powerful focus then being made on reading in the 4th grade, math in the 8th grade including algebra, and that that will just have all kinds of good results in this country, by focusing school districts and schools on those two subjects at those grades.

Q You would use the test then to encourage the broadening of 8th graders taking algebra. But is there not another way to do that? I mean, if this is standard knowledge, the benefits of it, why don't schools adopt it more on their own? Why is the test necessary to increase --

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, the test -- and you're asking a very good question, because it gets to the real root of why the test is important, to me. The test focuses the nation -- the nation -- not a school, not your child, or whatever -- you get the information on your child, but it focuses the nation on a priority. And the test doesn't tell you how to teach math, it doesn't tell you what you do to prepare for it or whatever; all it tests is what you know. Then the school district and all decides that. But if it's a national test and Americans have bought into it, that all of our children ought to be able to read independently by the 4th grade, do basic math by the 8th grade including algebra -- if that's done, I'll tell you it would be revolutionary in terms of the success we would have in education. So I think it's enormously important.

Q Mr. Secretary, maybe I'm dense, but isn't it the obvious that if you achieve within -- every teacher sets out a lesson plan and says this is what you need to do to master this particular subject, is it absolutely necessary that a national test be adhered to in order to know what the obvious is? You ought to know if your kid is achieving or not in a particular subject.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, there's two ways to look at that, too. You know, you've seen the chart we've had looking at various states on the NAEP test, but the NAEP test which is given out there now and looks at in a sample way -- you understand, just a sample test. If you took the test you might take one-seventh of it and you come out with a national average. This test you take the whole test and we know how you stood on math in 8th grade and reading in 4th. But NAEP then looked at the various states and it looked at -- I'm reluctant to call states, but one was South Carolina, one was Louisiana, Wisconsin, as I recall -- the local test there said reading in the 4th grade up in the range of 80 percent proficient readers. That's the state test.

NAEP, the national sample test taken in the same state, said it was in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent. And don't hold me to the exact numbers, but I've got the charts. But that came from the NAEP test.

So you see, a kid, then, in one of these states could think -- their parents could think they're reading wonderfully well. Compared to a national scale, they are doing very poorly and they don't know it. And what we are saying is, there's no reason in the world to keep that information from a parent. And people say, well, you know, children over here in a poor section don't do well, so why give them a test? Well, that's a terrible thing to say in this democracy. You give them a test because every child there is important and every child there must know how to read and every child there should know basic math and algebra in the 8th grade. And every individual there is important, and don't group this school, or it's done poorly or whatever, and say it's that way, so let's get over here and worry about college.

So I think it's very, very important to single in on every child and then to have a national challenging test to raise those levels of interest. And I'll tell you this: When the test is given, there are going to be a lot of disappointed, concerned people, because it's a high challenging test.

Then, that's when the important part comes. That's when the system reacts to the tests, and the parents say, wait a minute, my child's in the 4th grade and can hardly read. Then, the school district and the school can all come together. You look in Seattle. I was so pleased reading an article in Seattle the other day. Seattle gave a tough test. And I mean it was -- everybody was very concerned about it. They did poorly; a lot of kids did poorly. So the reaction was very positive. Not criticize the children, not kill the test, but let's improve the schools to where the kids do well in the test.

Q So you have all these battery of tests that students are already taking. How could they possibly be so out of whack with what should be obvious levels of achievement?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, they are.

Q In that test I think --

SECRETARY RILEY: I know. And the fact is they're all over the ball park. Delaware's local test is much harder than NAEP. I mean, you could test in Delaware reading basic, and in NAEP you would be reading proficient. You see what I mean? Delaware is way up here and Louisiana is down here. That's just the way it is. So, really, it makes a lot of sense to have a national test so everybody will know how their children stand, teachers will know what basic improvements are needed, but the important thing is to focus the nation on these basic skills of reading and math.

Q Mr. Secretary, two questions about the national test. Number one, a few minutes ago in making the case about why the administration opposes the voucher program for Washington, D.C., you said essentially we know where the problem is and we know how to better spend the money to solve the problem in this Washington, D.C. Isn't that precisely what opponents of the national tests say, that we ought not spend the money, we know how to fix schools and the money would be better spent fixing the schools rather than testing?

That's number one, and I've got a follow-up.

SECRETARY RILEY: Let me follow that again. You say the opponents of testing --

Q Yes, the opponents of testing say we don't need tests, we know how to fix schools --

SECRETARY RILEY: Yes, the answer I just gave -- let me answer that first -- that I gave this gentleman is the answer to that in my judgment, every student is important. And if you say this school does poorly, why test the children; they're poor, so don't worry about them.

Q What they're saying is don't spend the money on the test, apply the money that you would have spent on the test to fixing that school. Bypass the test, go in and fix the school.

SECRETARY RILEY: I guess it was Deming who said, you can't improve something you can't measure. Really, measurement is very, very important -- real measurement. If I'm a parent and my child is in that school and they say, you know, we don't need to test your child, we know he's going to do poorly; well, I want to know that. And if he does poorly, I want to know how. What is he weak in, in reading? What is he weak in, in math?

Every parent's entitled to that in this country, in my judgment and not to be grouped into some -- you're in this poor neighborhood, so we know you're going to do poorly, why test you? That's not fair to any child in that neighborhood.

Tell me the other.

Q The second question, if I could follow up, which is -- you talk about how, once you did the national tests, that will force school districts -- "force" is my word, not yours --


Q -- to change their curriculums in order to better -- to do better on the test. Isn't that precisely what opponents of the test fear, that it becomes the federal government's through its test, forcing alternations in local school district policy? You say for good reasons; they say for bad reasons.


Q Isn't that the nub of the debate?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, of course, what I say is that we don't tell them how to teach reading. All we propose is to test can the child read. And if they -- you can have two completely different ways of teaching reading. And you can look, then, if this child can read and this one can't, then that's good information for them. We don't say which is best or which is worst; all we propose to do is to test the child in reading, which is a very basic skill, we don't get into history and science and some of those very controversial ideological things; basic skills -- you either read or not. And then, with math it's the same way, and algebra. So we say it's very basic skills and it's a very fair way to look at it.

And you say -- some say that that might control curriculum, and all I say to that is we don't get into curriculum at all. All we test, all we propose -- and it's voluntary. If somebody is worried about that, all they have to do is say we don't want the test. We think it's going to catch on and we think the people in this country are going to almost look at it as a patriotic thing, to get involved in getting this country to read well, getting this country to do math well, and getting our children ready for college and important jobs.

Q But you do think it will influence curriculums, sir, when you said a moment ago these tests will shake up the status quo and make things happen.


Q Well, then --

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I'm saying we don't control curriculum. We're looking at can a child read, and if a child can't read it ought to shake up something. There's curriculum, it might be text books, it might be teacher preparation, it might be parent involvement, it might be technology, it might be violence in the school, drugs, construction. It will shake up something. And we want something shook up. That's what we want to do because if they're not reading then something needs to happen. But we don't get into curriculum. I want to make that clear, and I'll get 7,000 letters. We don't get into curriculum; we simply propose to measure basic skills, what they can do, and not how they learned it.

Q Where are the teachers unions with you on this?

SECRETARY RILEY: On the testing? I think they support it. I think they -- as far as I know, they -- I was trying to think -- there's two of them and I know the AFT -- I think both teacher organizations support the testing proposal that we made.

Q Secretary Riley, since you say mathematics is the opportunity, speaking at today's event, why is it that your office hasn't mandated algebra and geometry for every child?

SECRETARY RILEY: Because our office cannot do that and we would not like to do that. Education is, as I've said many times to you all and to others, is a state responsibility and it's a local function. The control of education is in the state, basically under our system. It's very similar to Brazil, by the way, which was very interesting, and in my trip to Brazil that's all they wanted to talk about, was education. But it's a state responsibility. It is illegal really for us to put out a federal curriculum.

So we want to do things to help the states and help the school districts, and measurement is one of them. We think that is real accountability. Anybody who is into accountability ought to be into true measurement because that makes -- that encourages, challenges states and school districts to improve their schools.

Q Secretary Riley, can I ask a follow-up to an answer you gave to Leo on vouchers? Do you think private and church schools really will try to scam people out of their vouchers? And also, did you mean to suggest that poor people aren't bright enough to know that they're being scammed by these schools?

SECRETARY RILEY: No. I started off saying that I've got great confidence in private and parochial schools. Some of them are the highest quality schools in the country. And we are involved with them in some ways, as you well know, with Title I and we've been all through that Aguilar versus Felton. But if you have a private school and you've got a voucher, then there is a complication in making that -- keeping that private or having public accountability. I mean, I think anybody can see that. That's not saying anything about any strong private or parochial school.

But a lot of the stronger schools, of course, charge more than $3,200 a year tuition. Some of them don't. Some of them, they could come within that range, and some of those are full. But I still say -- and I don't want to in any way infer that private and parochial schools are any kind of a bad choice. I think it's a wonderful choice for people to have, but I think they ought to stay private, stay parochial, and that vouchers is a very bad system.

And I don't quite understand what you're saying, but if you have -- I do think this -- that if you have poor people with a voucher, it certainly could cause entrepreneurs to then try to move into that zone. Now, that's not to say those good private and parochial schools -- I'm not talking about them, obviously. I have to handle higher education gate-keeping, and it is hard. I've had to close down -- not close down, but deny federal funds, Pell Grants and so forth, student loans, to, like, 700 colleges and universities and schools. And it, in substance, closes them down. And that's hard. That's a job, though. That's connecting up with them. And I don't know how that would be done on a K through 12 system, but that's the problem in higher education. Some of those schools aren't schools at all and we have to then come in and say that. And that is very, very difficult and it's an accountability responsibility that is very, very difficult.

Q Can I just follow that last point? So, as a matter of principle, the principle of the federal government subsidizing colleges and universities, private and parochial schools at the college level, it's okay, but it's not okay as a principle, assuming you could get around this one issue that you just raised, in secondary or elementary schools?

SECRETARY RILEY: It's two totally different things. The state constitutions primarily, or state law -- usually, it's the state constitution -- says that the state will provide free public education for every child in the state. That, of course, under court interpretation is K through 12. That is the state's responsibility; not the federal government, but the state. And it covers all children. It covers disabled children; it covers brilliant children; it covers whatever.

And then after grade 12, there's no such state constitutional or legal requirement to provide free public education. So in higher education, you get out of the 12th grade, then our programs deal with the individual. They're adults then, too, but there's no state control of the system and the state responsibility. So as far as a child going to a religious school in college, it's no different with us -- we deal with the child -- than if they're going to a private school or a public school. But it's totally different. One is K through 12; that's state. And the other is adults who are not in the state-protected system.

Q What do you think of the salaries college presidents are getting, Mr. Secretary? Did you read about that? Did you read about these high salaries these college presidents are getting?

SECRETARY RILEY: I haven't, no. Something recent?

Q Yes.

MR. MCCURRY: It looks like a good line of work, though. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY RILEY: I recommend Mike -- (laughter.)

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:50 P.M. EDT