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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release November 8, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

                           The Briefing Room

1:52 P.M. EST

MR. TOIV: Good afternoon everybody. As Joe mentioned, the Department of Education has issued today an excellent report, which is right here, local success stories reducing class size based on what the additional teachers that we got last year in the Congress. Here to brief on that report, and on the current debate in the Congress on appropriations and teachers are Secretary of Education Dick Riley and the President's Domestic Policy Advisor, Bruce Reed.

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you. As we approach the final days of this session, I'm really somewhat astonished that we have not been able to settle a matter that I think should have been settled months ago. Class size reduction is something that's so clearly beneficial to our students' ability to learn and teachers' ability to teach effectively that it really somewhat bewilders me that it is standing in the way of conclusion on some of these budget decisions.

The truism that smaller class size makes for better education is an important reason, really, why we were able to reach a bipartisan agreement last year on this very same issue. It's why more than 29,000 teachers have already made their way into the classroom and begun to fulfill the President's commitment to make higher quality education one of his very clear national priorities.

Now, it's unfortunate that the majority in Congress have supplanted common sense with political posturing. The benefits of smaller class size for both students and teachers are abundantly clear. Research has shown that class size reduction in early grades, with a qualified teacher, leads to higher student achievement in reading and in math. The benefits are greatest for disadvantaged and minority students. What's more, as recent analysis reveals, the payback that comes from participating in small classes increases from year to year. It gets increasingly better in terms of achievement.

Other things that research shows that smaller class size help with, in addition to higher student achievement, is more individualized attention, fewer classroom disruptions, strong foundation in basic reading and math, fewer failures, students better prepared for college. And that's why the schools across the nation have seized on the support that we've offered by this initiative to enhance learning in their own classrooms.

And as this report that was shown that we're issuing today makes clear, the funds are already being used in the class size reduction initiative passed last year to good use. And they're making a real difference in students learning.

For example, the report shows that approximately 1.7 million children are expected to benefit directly in this school year by being educated in smaller class size. An average class size has been reduced by more than five students in grade levels and schools where the vast majority of teachers hired with these funds were there, and there to teach.

What's more, the class size reduction plan passed last year provides the kind of flexibility to local schools that allows them to support local objectives and priorities. And I'll mention just a couple briefly. Arguments are wrong that don't understand that; as our report shows, there's no one prescribed manner of use for this money. Columbus, Ohio, the funds are being used to help turn around low-performing schools by reducing class size from 25 to 15 in grades one through three.

Montgomery County, Maryland, the funds are helping to give every student in grades one and two a class size of no more than 15 for reading instruction. And application of these funds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Jackson, Mississippi, shows how lowering class size works hand in hand with efforts to recruit and to prepare qualified teachers.

Nationally, local school districts have spent nearly $100 million of these funds for teacher training in order to strengthen teacher quality. I think that's an important part of this discussion. In 40 urban school districts alone, according to the -- city schools report, these funds have helped provide more than 22,000 new and current teachers with the most effective instructional practices there in these 40 urban school districts.

Smaller class size as supported by this legislation allows teachers and students to do the best they can do, and teachers can't teach effectively when they are hampered by the burden of too many students in the classroom. So President Clinton and Vice President Gore have made education a national priority. And they were speaking for the American people when they have done it. And I hope that this Congress can get beyond partisanship and work with the administration to meet this common desire.


MR. REED: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Let me make three quick points to reinforce what the Secretary said. First is, class size reduction is clearly working. As Secretary Riley pointed out, this report shows that school districts are hiring an estimated 29,000 highly qualified teachers with the funds from last year's budget agreement. The program's helping 1.7 million children, and the average class size in grades one to three in the schools that are being helped has dropped from 23 to 18. It's also going to support professional development and teacher quality. Because of this program we're hiring more teachers and better teachers. And our view is the program is working -- it's not broke, don't fix it. We want a budget that hires more teachers, not one that fires the teachers school districts have hired this year.

The second point is that despite the rhetoric around this issue, this is not really about flexibility and local control, as Secretary Riley said. There is enormous flexibility in the current proposal. It's about whether we're actually going to give Americans smaller classes with good teachers, or whether we're just going to promise them a pig in a poke.

Republicans like to talk about sending money to the classroom, that's exactly what this program does. Funds go directly to the local school district, which decides who to hire and which schools to help. And local districts around the country like this program. This report shows how much they can do with the money, what kind of flexibility and innovations it's helping to inspire.

The only requirement is that since the purpose of this program is to hire quality teachers to reduce class size, the funds actually have to go to keep that promise, to hire quality teachers to reduce class size; and not go to projects totally unrelated to what we all agree we should be doing.

The Labor/HHS bill that Congress passed and the President vetoed last week would not only have failed to guarantee a single dollar going to class size reduction, but it would have opened a back door to allow communities to use class size funds for vouchers. That's not flexibility, that's ideology, and we believe the taxpayer dollars should go for smaller classes and more teachers in the public schools, not vouchers in the private schools.

And the third and final point is, this shouldn't be a partisan issue. Everyone involved in this debate agreed to this program last year. Republicans and Democrats created it together in last fall's budget agreement, before the election. Leading Republicans put out statements praising the program. Dick Armey praised it; Bill Goodling, the Education Chairman, called it "a real victory for the Republican Congress, but more important, it's a huge win for local educators and parents who are fed up with Washington mandates, red tape and regulation." Last fall, Republicans ran campaign ads touting this victory.

And our view is that smaller classes are a good idea every year, not just in election years, and we ought to keep the promise this year.

SECRETARY RILEY: Any questions?

Q Mr. Secretary, do you have enough teachers in this country -- qualified teachers are needed all over the country -- or do you have to import them, are you -- this country?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, over the next 10 years, the number that our research shows that we've used is that we're going to need an additional 2.2 million teachers -- that's over a 10-year period. And we then have the job to do in this country to make sure that we develop that many teachers. And we have several programs, of course, which deal with that in the higher education act and in other proposals.

And this is one of them, of course. Under this proposal you can take -- the local school district has the option to take this money and use it to recruit teachers, young people who might be interested in teaching, but to recruit them or whatever; to train teachers. And as this report shows, several school districts use it very effectively to train teachers or to hire teachers. So you have complete flexibility. So this particular program will help with the issue you mentioned.

I think we have sufficient teachers here if we put the proper resources to training them, to recruiting and to have professional development. Fifteen percent of this money can be used for existing teachers for professional development to help them to become better teachers in these early grades, especially in reading.

Q Secretary Riley, what about a school or school board that has an adequate number of teachers -- and I realize that they may be few and far between -- can it use this money for other expenses if it's already got class sizes down? For example, if -- maybe they need half a teacher or whatever to get the school down to 16 students per class, but they desperately need to buy some computers. Can they use the extra funds for those type of appropriations?

SECRETARY RILEY: The proposals that we have, the initiative that's underway, calls for using the funds to prioritize class size for those early grades, down to 15 to 18. Then, of course, you can use them for other grades. You can also use 15 percent of the funds for professional development all along. You can use all of it for training and recruiting.

Now, if you have all that done is the example you give, and I would think there are very, very few school districts where all of that is in place. But if it is -- in all grades, you have class sizes down or whatever -- you can of course use the funds, all of the funds, for improving teachers. As you know, we're big on standards, and the states have standards. And the way to get standards in the classroom is to have quality teachers. That is the key to it.

So all of our programs basically are moving in the direction of getting class size down and having quality teachers in all classes. So yes, the funds can be used for purposes of improving teaching, which is really the basic purpose of education. But that is it.

Q So if computers would improve teaching, they could use the money to buy computers, let's say?

SECRETARY RILEY: I don't think that, unless it was part of a professional development program, wouldn't you say?

MR. REED: Yes, I think that the way the law is written, the law that both Republicans and Democrats agreed to last year, if a school district has already reached the target of class sizes in the early grades of 18, then it can use the money to reduce class sizes in other grades, or it can use the money on professional development, teacher quality, which encompasses a variety of activities. There are other programs that are at issue in this budget -- to make sure, for example, that communities have enough money to buy computers in the schools, that's been a priority for the President and the Vice President. And I believe that the conference agreement doesn't fund education technology to the level that we asked for, but they've backed away from plans to cut it.

Q But this money for 100,000 teachers has to go into teachers in some way, shape or form? It can't go to any other school expenses or appropriations?

SECRETARY RILEY: That's right. The technical question, I guess, for software in a professional development program, something that would be enhancing teachers. But --

Q -- what do you say to the rare school district that already has done a good job of getting class size down, but says, you know, we could really use this money for something else?

MR. REED: Well, school districts already get other block grants. There's other flexible money --

Q Well, what about this money?

MR. REED: Well, I think that we're trying to achieve two things: more teachers for smaller classes in the early grades, and better teachers. As this report points out, the program has already helped 1.7 million children. But there are millions of other children who are not yet in classes where --

SECRETARY RILEY: -- target of the program to the 80 percent ---

MR. REED: -- at the smaller level that all the research shows they need to be in order to learn effectively. And as the Secretary pointed out, as a nation, we face an enormous challenge in improving the quality of teaching. So I think that it's not a burden to a local school district to say, first you need to provide smaller classes with good teachers, and once you've achieved that goal, you need to make sure that -- you can use the money to improve teacher quality generally. Any school district could easily find use for those purposes.

Q -- looking at the discrepancy between the Republican proposal and the President's proposal, the Republican proposal would allow school districts to use the money as they saw necessary, whereas your program would dictate to schools that it's got to be used for teachers.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, this report -- I want to make sure you have one of these reports -- shows the flexibility that's out there in the use of the funds, and the innovative, creative way that districts are using funds to recruit and to train teachers, working in combination with other programs. And it's very interesting. In those districts where it is being used, the schools then that have been targeted really have gotten down in the range of 17-18 pupils per class, in those early grades in mostly poor schools.

So I think it's very clear that it's being used in a very creative, flexible way. It's not like some demand to go out and just hire teachers. The drive is for lower class size -- no question about that. That's the priority. But it's a very flexible program.

And I'd say this -- the block grant concept -- this study that we have produced today is on a -- it would not be possible under a block grant program. How would you analyze the effectiveness of your federal dollars? You have federal dollars going out in some broad way and if they're being wasted or if they're not being put to proper priorities, then you have no way in the world of evaluating, monitoring, no accountability. And that's another word that the Republicans use a lot, but there would be some accountability here. You could see what's happening to classes, what's happening to teachers. And as I say, that's consistent with our effort to have standards move to the classroom.

MR. REED: And if I could make just one more point to reenforce the notion of how important it is to have accountability and have a program that actually insists on results and delivers on what it purports to deliver. We've already had this debate. We had this same debate on the President's initiative to put 100,000 cops on the street. The initial Republican reaction was, let's just do a block grant, let the local communities decide, they can spend the money however they want to.

We said that the most important thing we can do to reduce crime is to hire more police officers, do it in community policing. We gave the local communities enormous flexibility in how they would deliver on that promise; but the basic notion was the way to reduce crime is to put more cops on the street and community policing. And that program has been in place for six years. It's been enormously successful. We have beaten back repeated Republican efforts to turn it into a block grant. The crime rate has dropped every single year the program has been in place. We're in the midst of the longest continuous decline in crime on record.

So our view is that we need to give communities flexibility, as we have, but we shouldn't be trying to pass off a program as class size reduction if it's not really going to reduce class size.

Q Maybe I didn't understand your answer to Mr. Roberts' questions. But you seem to be saying there's flexibility regarding how to get to -- there's no flexibility on the goal, you have to use the money to reduce class size. If you can find a way to reduce your class size without adding more teachers, then you can use for money for that. Is that what you're saying?

MR. REED: The question was about school districts that have already reduced class sizes. I think it's mathematically difficult to reduce class sizes without adding teachers --

Q Well, that's what I thought.

MR. REED: -- unless you had fewer students. I suppose that the Republican voucher scheme might achieve that result. But our point is just that -- there's plenty of flexibility for schools that have already met the target to spend the money on professional development and spend the money on reducing class size in other grades.

Q So the early grades that could use them --

MR. REED: That's right. That's right.

SECRETARY RILEY: But the flexibility, we think it's important to note, and this report goes into that, shows there's a lot to class size other than just hiring teachers. You have to recruit teachers. You have to train teachers. You have to bring about teachers. And then you have to professionally prepare teachers who are already out there. So this program is flexible in that regard. But you're right: the goal is class size and quality teaching. It's both.

Q -- mandate hiring more teachers, and they found out they didn't have enough qualified teachers to meet the goal?

MR. REED: Yes, I think that we've done a -- the report details some of the differences between our proposal and what California tried to do. Our proposal is phased in, so it allows time to hire quality teachers rather than trying to achieve the goal everywhere in the first year, as California tried to do. It's targeted, so it starts with the neediest places. California, again, was across-the-board. And then, there is plenty of money in our proposal for professional development, to make sure that the teachers are qualified.

SECRETARY RILEY: Good. Thank you all.

MR. REED: Thanks.

END 2:12 P.M. EST