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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 19, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

The Briefing Room

9:20 A.M. EDT

MR. TOIV: Good morning, everybody. As you can see, I am flanked by the Secretary of Education Dick Riley, and the President's Domestic Policy Advisor Bruce Reed, who are going to talk to you a little bit today about what the President just announced, which is the introduction later this week of our proposal for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And I will get out of their way.

SECRETARY RILEY: As the President indicated in his statement, that we are absolutely determined to pick up the pace of change to give all children in our nation a quality education that prepares them for this next century. We're not satisfied with the status quo. We're determined to make positive changes happen sooner rather than later.

Five years ago, in reauthorizing the ESEA, we set out to end what I called a tyranny of low expectations -- a deeply flawed assumption that giving children who are living in poverty, poor children, a second-class and in some cases a third-class education, and that that was acceptable in this country. And it's not. The administration has never been willing to accept a status quo that puts children in over-crowded classrooms, with unprepared teachers who are forced to teach from watered-down curriculum. No child should be left behind. No child should be allowed to drift through school unable to read. No child should have an unqualified teacher. And no child should have to go to a failing school.

The legislation that we're sending to Congress this week places a very strong emphasis on quality teachers and greater accountability. It captures the best of the many practices at the local and state level that are helping us to improve public education. This administration has been pro education from day one, and we're not about to back off now from our commitment to making sure every child in this country has a quality education.

We know how to make meaningful change happen. The last thing we need to be doing at this moment is to be listening to the sound bite experts who are already promising another round of silver bullet solutions and educational quick fixes. There's a strong emerging American consensus out there about how to improve education, and our proposed legislation reflects this developing and growing consensus.

We place a strong emphasis on raising academic standards, early childhood learning opportunities, reading, smaller classes, up-to-date training and support for teachers, getting technology into every single classroom, more after-school and summer school programs, proven prevention efforts to keep our schools safe.

We want real accountability for results, and we want much greater parent and community involvement to make our schools better. And we also have to be forward-looking and update our schools for this next era. And that's why we continue to place a strong emphasis on math and science, and a new emphasis on foreign language and reform of the American high school.

I see no reason, for example, why every single high school in America, including high poverty schools, should not be giving their students the opportunity to take advance placement courses. And we have to help our high schools do a much better job of connecting with all of their students in light of the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colorado.

Raising standards, improving the quality of America's teachers and giving them the support they need, schools which prepare children to pass and not to fail -- all of these things translate, then, into real accountability for results. A strong commitment of safe, disciplined, drug-free schools -- these are the core ideas that define this legislation.

I think we're moving in the right direction. And we look forward to working to improve the quality of education for all of our children. America's parents and the public deserve quality public schools in their respective communities, and this legislation is an important, forward-looking approach to helping us provide an education of excellence for all children.


Q What are you talking about when you refer to the quick fixes and silver bullets?

SECRETARY RILEY: You want me to respond to that?

MR. REED: Go ahead.

SECRETARY RILEY: If you look at this approach that we have, the reauthorization of this major piece of legislation, dealing with K through 12, and you see how we're moving forward where we are -- we start with standards being out there in all 50 states now. And Goals 2000 and the reauthorization in '94 really have moved all that forward.

Now we're trying to get standards down into the classroom in a very comprehensive, big way. That means good teachers. And it means accountability. And it means quality technology use, and so forth. These are major things.

Now, if you look at those that are out there talking about vouchers, talking about dollars following the students -- they've got two or three other names that they have and they kind of boil down to the same kind of approach. It takes us off -- it takes our eyes off of the prize. It takes us off of the concentration of making all schools better and having accountability. And it gets you off into some kind of magic way to improve education that I think is absolutely wrong.

Vouchers are a bad policy. It diverts money and attention from quality public schools. There's no question in my mind about that. It's a very complicated thing of dealing with then where the children go to school, no accountability for the public source in terms of private schools. You have all kinds of private schools jumping up --

Q Do you think it's to try to break down the public school system?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I would have to let those people who propose that say what their motivation is. I think it does, in its ultimate sense, cause dramatic damage to the public school system. And there's no need to get into that. It divides communities wide open. It diverts us from our attention to high standards for all children. We do the gateway for colleges and universities to where can Pell Grants be used and all. And we've had to close down, as I said before, over 700 higher institutions -- institutions of higher learning since I've been the Secretary because there were no schools at all.

Now, imagine if you do that out in K through 12 and you had every kind of entrepreneur in the world starting private schools, plus there are some constitutional questions. But I think it's just bad public policy. And the thing that bothers me it takes us off of where we know we can do wonderful help and great good. And that's what this bill is all about.

Why don't I let Bruce make his comments and then we'll get back into it.

MR. REED: Let me just add to what the Secretary said to Helen, which is the reason that this bill is so important is that this year we are going to have a great national debate about the role that the national government should play in education --

Q You mean the presidential campaign?

MR. REED: I think both in Congress and in the coming campaign. There are some in Congress who believe that the national government has no business investing more in education, and no business demanding accountability for results. We disagree. We think this is a national problem, that we should say once and for all that every kid ought to have a qualified teacher; no kid in America should be trapped in a failing school; and that we should fix our schools not one district at a time, not one state at a time, but everywhere.

And we welcome this national debate, we want to bring it on. And I might just add that the Congress is not off to a good start in this regard. This week the House Appropriations Committee released allocations for the various appropriations subcommittees, and the House allocations based on the budget resolution would require a 10 to 15 percent cut in the Labor-HHS bill which funds education. So we want to have a debate that moves education forward and it's off to the wrong start.

Q Could I ask about that comment? They say they're trying to live within the caps proposed in the budget deal a year and a half ago. Are you saying that perhaps the caps should be loosened, at least in this case, with regard to the Labor-HHS bill?

MR. REED: The President's budget which funds education is within the caps. We proposed ways to pay for these programs. And we'd like to see Congress follow suit.

Q Secretary Riley, you're talking about putting qualified teachers in the classrooms. Does this involve substitute teachers? Because in many cases, substitute teachers are in place in one classroom for weeks at a time.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I think we focus a lot here on teachers. As the President indicated and as I indicated, if we're talking about getting standards, definition of education and what it means, down into the classroom where it impacts the child, you've got to have quality teachers. And that's a major job this country has to do over the next 10 years.

And then, yes, you can have substitute teachers, you can have non-certified teachers -- a lot of them -- and that is a shortfall, and that is not a quality education, if you depend on teachers who are not certified, who are not certified to teach. So we want strong attention to that. We propose then to lump together Goals 2000, the Eisenhower Professional Development program, and Title VI of the old act that is kind of a block grant section -- to lump all those together and come out with a very strong teacher support system, proposed then that would give strong, different quality professional development for teachers, ways for teacher aids who are qualified to move toward teaching and getting certified, getting teachers who are not teaching in the field that they were educated out of the classroom and replace them with teachers who are. So we're proposing a major thrust in that direction.

Q So when are you hoping for a change in the substitute teacher policy?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, we don't deal with the substitute teacher policy as such. That's kind of a local matter as to how they handle a teacher who is out temporarily or something like that. We deal more with teacher certification. And we have a period of years that we -- all schools would have to deal with that issue and teaching out of field.

MR. REED: Let me just add, April, the poorer schools have the hardest time getting good teachers and we attack that on a number of fronts. The President proposed and Congress adopted a plan to provide scholarships to people who go into teaching in low-income areas. This legislation requires that for Title I schools, all new teachers be fully certified or moving into certification within three years. And it strengthens the requirements for teacher's aides. In a lot of poor schools today it's aides that are doing much of the teaching, so this requires that teacher's aides need to have at least two years of college to be a teaching assistant. If they have less than that, they can't be a classroom instructor.

Q How much money is this and are you focusing on the colleges that turn out teachers? Is that where some of the money will go?

MR. REED: The teacher quality program in this bill was funded last year at $1.2 billion -- the three programs that are consolidated into one program.

Q How much is it altogether?

MR. REED: Well, the overall federal effort in public education for public schools is about $15 billion a year.

Q Also there is a sentence here, students will have to demonstrate that they meet standards at three transition points. Is this going to reignite the debate over standardized testing? Is the President going to repropose that, try to get something like that through?

MR. REED: Well, first off, the standards that students would have to meet would be set by the states and assessed by the states, and states and school districts need to use multiple measures, not just rely on a single test.

Q On another subject, Secretary Riley, you're saying don't hold students back, but put more qualified teachers -- you have a lot of students graduating who are not speaking the King's and Queen's English and able to put one and one together. Why not hold them back, instead of blaming it on the teachers?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, those children, students, who are finishing high school and are uneducated are a reflection of not having a standards process in place. If standards are handled properly, those kids when they were in kindergarten would have been judged to be having development trouble in terms of language; they would have had extra resources in kindergarten, in the 1st grade, and the 3rd grade, in the 4th grade, until they were able to handle that.

That's why -- and that's a story of the past. We want to change that. We want to make it where all young people are, as I say, taught in the school system to pass, from kindergarten on, and not just let them drift on through, and then in the 8th grade you realize they didn't learn how to read, and get into 12th grade and they don't understand algebra and so forth.

So the standard process -- I know I bore you to death talking about it -- it works. And if it's done properly, you will not have that situation exist. Now, when you have it out there, you then have to come in with extra resources, with after-school, which we're recommending a tripling of the funding; with summer schools, all those funds can also be used for summer school; small classes, very critical, especially in those early years -- that works. Research shows it works. All of those things then will make it where you won't have the situation develop where you have failing students.

Q Is there a federal mandate as to how many students must graduate from a state every year? Because I understand certain schools have some kind of ratio that they must put -- a certain amount must graduate each year.


SECRETARY RILEY: You talking about colleges?

Q No, i'm talking about grade schools and high schools -- elementary and high school.


Q Why do you think the Senate turned around on the safety locks on guns for children?

MR. REED: That's a common sense measure that we've been advocating here for some time. About a year and a half ago, the President brought gun manufacturers to the White House for a voluntary agreement on child safety locks. We've been pushing for this legislation for some time, and we're delighted that the Senate has come around. We think that there are a series of common sense steps that gun makers and hunters and sportsmen and ordinary Americans can agree on, and we'd like the Senate to make some more progress today.

Q Are you still pushing for the Lautenberg measure on gun show checks? Or would you accept the language that's in there now if the bill came down like that?

MR. REED: We're going to push very hard for the Lautenberg measure. The measure that the Senate passed last week on gun shows is riddled with loopholes. It doesn't effectively crack down on background checks at gun shows. It opens a whole new loophole by allowing criminals to buy guns at pawn shops. So, as the President said earlier this morning, the Senate needs to finish work on the Juvenile Justice bill and bring both measures that Speaker Hastert endorsed yesterday to a vote in the Senate -- background checks for gun shows and raising the handgun age to 21.

Q To follow up on that, would he veto the bill if that measure was still in there? Wouldn't half a loaf be better than --

MR. REED: Look, I think that -- it's not going to come to that. We've seen an increasing amount of common sense in recent days, and we think that as time goes on, the congressional leadership will come around on more of these common sense issues.

Q Can I ask about the education bill again? You talk a lot about accountability measures, and specifically about social promotion and about cracking down on schools that don't work. But the 1994 bill had a lot of stuff on accountability, too, and I wonder if you can specifically tell me how this bill is different on accountability from 1994. What's new on it? And following that, how does the federal government plan to enforce these accountability measures? What's the mechanism for making them happen from Washington?

MR. REED: The measures the President highlighted today are all new -- a new emphasis on turning around failing schools or shutting them down, which has shown tremendous results in a handful of states that have tried it. In North Carolina, for example, they identified 15 failing schools. They actively intervened. Within a year, 14 of those schools were meeting the state standards. That's new. The teacher requirements we talked about for all teachers being certified or an alternative certification process that will lead to certification within three years is new. The requirement that secondary school teachers know the subject that they're teaching is new. Annual report cards on performance is new. Discipline codes is new.

Q What happens if a school doesn't send out the annual report card? Does Washington cut off their money? What happens if a school doesn't turn around in a few years? Do you shut them down?

MR. REED: The Secretary has a variety of sanctions at his disposal, ranging from a mild rebuke to a cut-off of money. But we think that states and school districts will do these things. We don't think any state is going to want to stand in the way of having qualified teachers or turning around failing schools, for example.

Q Secretary Riley, how do you think schools across the country are handling the aftermath of this Littleton, Colorado situation, where they're looking and getting kids who are threatening each other and expelling them and finding all these people who are problem people?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, and, of course, there were hearings yesterday on that subject, and I thought it was very interesting -- several of the young children who testified mentioned, for example, small classes, and how important that is so young people will get to know each other and get to know their teacher. And I think all across the country this was such a riveting occurrence that it really just kind of overpowered everything else for even up to the present time. So you're seeing different reactions all across the country. I think generally people are really trying their very best to deal with this very difficult situation.

And I am very pleased with our early warning guides which were prepared really after the previous incidences occurred. So, fortunately, we have that in place, and when this happened we immediately made those available. We've had to go to the reprinting of another 150,000. They are very well-done.

I can say that -- Janet Reno and I caused them to be done, but they involve the top school psychologists in America, the top teachers, counselors, law enforcement people, mental health people, and they really are very well-put-together ideas about how to prevent these kinds of incidences happening ; then if they happen, what to do.

Q Did Littleton have one? Did the Littleton high school have one?

SECRETARY RILEY: They would have, yes. They were sent to all the schools. In fact, in Littleton, they had done a number of things that were the right things to do to prevent incidences. But, of course, again, this is kind of an aberration, but no question about the guidelines I think are very solid things for schools to do.

Large schools have a more difficult job -- large high schools -- than smaller schools, obviously, with the number of children being a lot greater. And that's another thing that we're talking about here, is reform of the high schools, school within school, ways to get more personal in the high school setting. So I think the American people are responding in a good way.

Thank you.

END 9:45 A.M. EDT