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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 2, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY

                 The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:05 P.M. EDT

MR. KENNEDY: Here to answer any questions you may have on the White House Conference on Teenagers are Bruce Reed and Shirley Sagawa, who is the Deputy Chief of Staff to the First Lady. In addition, Bruce will be talking about the upcoming school reform tour. Thank you.

MR. REED: Thanks, Jim. In a moment, I want to give you an overview of the President's school reform tour tomorrow and Thursday, but first let me just say a word about today's conference on raising responsible teenagers, and then turn it over to Shirley Sagawa.

First of all, if you haven't seen it, you should get a copy of the book that Shirley and Eli Segal wrote, called "Common Interest, Common Good." This is actually a first: a good book by someone who left the Clinton White House. (Laughter.) Available in stores.

The purpose of this conference is to do exactly what Shirley talks about in her book, which is to help motivate people in all walks of life to take steps that government can't do on its own. As the President and the First Lady have often said, governments don't raise children, parents do. And the conference is about what all sectors of society can do to make it easier for parents to do that job where it's the hardest, with teenagers.

I want to highlight one step that the President took today, which is the executive order on parental discrimination in the federal work force. As you may recall, in the 1999 State of the Union the President called on Congress to take steps to protect parents from being discriminated against in the work force. Senator Dodd and Senator Kennedy introduced legislation last year to do just that, but Congress hasn't acted on it.

So today, the President is taking executive action to do for the federal work force what we would like to see Congress do for the rest of the country. The order would bar discrimination against parents in all aspects of employment -- recruitment, referral, hiring, promotion and so on -- and prohibit employers in the executive branch from acting on the mere assumption that parents or those with parental responsibilities can't satisfy the requirements of a particular position. It wouldn't interfere in any way with an employer's ability to select workers who aren't able to perform a job in question; it would simply ensure that workers aren't discriminated against on the basis of being a parent.

And we will continue to press Congress for that legislation as well as for the rest of our family agenda, which includes expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to enable parents to take time off for a parent-teacher conference, or a child's doctor's appointment, and also to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more workers.

Well, with that, let me turn it over to Shirley.

MS. SAGAWA: Thanks, Bruce. Today's conference was very timely, because of, certainly, parents' concerns, in the wake of all the violent incidents, about what they can do to help their children navigate the teen years. It's also timely because there's new brain research, which has recently been released, that shows that the teen years are a time of rapid brain growth, pruning and change that rivals the first three years of life. So not only do we have people's attention because of the crime, but we also know that it's more important than ever to do something.

We heard this morning from a lot of researchers and experts who validated what the YMCA poll that we released today has said, and that is that teenagers really do want to spend time and hear from their parents, that parents are big influences in their children's lives.

One of the interesting things the YMCA poll that we released today stressed is that parents don't always realize this. And so that was one of the strong messages. The poll showed that there were -- they surveyed parents and teens about what the most important issues their families were facing were. And the poll showed that parents think violence, education, drugs and alcohol are the most pressing issues facing their families and their teens. The teens think education and time with their parents. And so that was actually a very interesting finding.

Some of the things that we announced today that would address those specific concerns, one is -- Bruce has already spoken about. The second is tools that are available for parents and teenagers. Mrs. Clinton announced a new task force on navigating the new media age. As you heard her say today, she is a big advocate of a voluntary uniform rating system. But in an interim step towards exploring ways to make it easier for parents to supervise their teens, the First Lady announced a public-private partnership to provide tools for parents and teens, create a website that explains all the myriad rating systems that already exist, and help to use them more effectively, as well as use the new media to create one-stop shopping opportunities for parents and teens to find information that they need. Some of the groups involved in this task force are the Center for Media Education, the American Psychological Association, America's Promise, the Children's Defense Fund and GetNetWise.

We also released a CEA Report that includes a lot of background statistical information that you may find useful. And we also have announced that two organizations, the Families and Work Institute and the National Partnership on Women and Families, are launching a national campaign to encourage employers to make it easier for parents of teenagers to spend time with their kids. There has certainly been a lot of energy over the last decade around helping parents of young children spend time with them, but there seems to be a sense that maybe that's not so important when kids maybe turn 10, 11, 12, and 13, when, in fact, the research that we heard today says exactly the opposite. So this campaign will be an attempt to help change that conventional wisdom both for employers and for parents themselves.

So those are some of the pieces that we've released. And we'll be happy to answer questions.

Q On the executive order -- I'm just trying to get a sense of how it changes things. Is it legal now to discriminate against parents?

MR. REED: Well, in fact, there is no protection in federal law against parental discrimination in the work force, and some courts have ruled that additional measures would be needed to protect parents. And we hope that this is not a widespread practice, but we'd like to be on the safe side and take every step we can to make sure that parents are protected.

Q But Bruce, do you have any sense at all within the federal government that this is a problem?

MR. REED: As I said, there are a number of cases out there that have been litigated in the courts, and parents have been unable to get relief. We don't --

Q Did those cases involve federal employees, or did they involve people in the private sector?

MR. REED: Most of the cases that I'm familiar with are in the private sector.

Q Wouldn't mothers have been protected by sex discrimination laws, though? And is it the case that -- is it fathers who actually are getting the brunt of this?

MR. REED: There are, there's a law that was passed in the mid-'70s to protect pregnant women. There are also, as you said, sex discrimination laws. But as I said, there is nothing on the books to protect parents as a class. This would cover instances where the parent was discriminated on the basis of being a parent. It wouldn't just be that they happen to be a parent, or if they couldn't show up -- if they weren't willing to work past 6:00 p.m., this legislation would do nothing -- or this order would do nothing to help them. This is really just to prevent overt discrimination by an employer against a parent as a parent.

Q Is it the administration's position that a business has no right to make -- to differentiate among potential candidates, saying, well, you have two young children and that's going to be a concern to you and it may be a concern to us, and we're going to need you 14 hours a day, and we have an applicant who doesn't have children, and from our business point of view we think that person with no children would work out better for us -- is it the administration's position that's an irrational and illegal judgment to make?

MR. REED: Any employer -- and in this case the federal government -- would have the right to set the qualifications for a job, set the hours for a job, put on the table what's to be expected of the candidate. But if a person is willing to put in the time, if they're qualified, then they shouldn't be discriminated against just because they're a parent and the prospective employer thinks that they might not be able to measure up.

Q Can I ask you -- can I switch topics a moment to education just for a second, since we're hitting the tomorrow, on education? Since the administration is winding down, is it possible in any way to come up with any quantification as to how the Clinton administration's educational policies have actually impacted on education during the past seven and a half years?

MR. REED: Well, when the President addressed the education writers in Atlanta about 10 days ago, we issued a report by the Education Department that outlined some of the progress that we've made, and we'll be talking -- we'll have more copies of that report on the trip tomorrow and we'll also be talking more about what we've done and what is left to do.

To sum it up, I think that we have made a lot of progress. Forty-eight states now do assessments to measure whether students are making progress against state standards; very little of that was in place when we took office. We've expanded the number of charter schools, from one when we took office to 1,700 now, and we're on our way to 3,000. We have nearly doubled the federal investment in education, and beaten back an effort by the conservatives to eliminate the Department of Education and scale back the national responsibility.

And there has been quite a bit of good news -- reading, math and SAT scores are up. There's been some closing of the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and other students. But we clearly have a long way to go. We still have real problems, particularly with kids further along in school, with 8th and 12th graders. And there are two very important debates in Congress this year -- one is going on this week in the Congress. The House has already passed a series of bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is the central vehicle for federal education assistance to poor schools. The House bills are largely unacceptable.

The Senate will be debating what to do on ESEA, and the Senate Republicans have offered a bill which the President has threatened to veto because it actually beats a retreat from the accountability measures that we have put in place over the last seven years. We'd like to go further. We'd like to require every state and school district to end social promotion, to target low-performing schools, to require all their teachers to be fully qualified, and so on. The Republican bill is a bill based on block-granting federal education assistance with very little accountability in return. So that's an important debate that will be going on as the backdrop to this tour.

And then the second big debate is the overall debate on the budget in which -- that will play out over the summer and into the fall -- about whether we continue to fund 100,000 teachers and after-school, and whether we can convince Congress to enact the President's school construction initiative, and also who prevails in the debate over tax cuts versus these other priorities.

As the President and the Vice President have said, some of the Republican plans put as much as $100 into tax cuts for every new dollar in education investment. We think that's the wrong mix. And so this tour will set the stage for those two important debates.

Q Given that -- what is it, still less than 5 percent of school funding is provided by the federal government, is that right?

MR. REED: It's about 7 percent.

Q It's about 7 percent? And it used to be what, 4 percent, right? Right around there?

MR. REED: It's ranged from about 5 to 7, I think.

Q Right. Given that, when you point to these things that have happened since 1992, is it only fair to give the states most of the credit for this, or not? For the improvements you've --

MR. REED: Oh, I think that we've been very fortunate that there's been a standards movement in place that has gathered steam in the states. And we've tried to advance that movement, and the ESEA bill that we passed in 1994 required states to assess students, to measure whether they were making progress, which we think is an important benchmark to keep the standards movement going. And we've tried to provide more resources to help states and localities.

We think that this is everybody's responsibility, and that government at every level should be doing more than it has done, and should be holding itself accountable for results -- and that frankly the federal government needs to do far more of that; that for 30 years the federal government has invested, particularly in its programs to help poor schools, with very little accountability and very low consequences for failure. And the President would like to change that, and say that for all schools, but especially for the low-performing poor schools, we need to demand more, because the percentage of federal assistance that goes to those schools is much higher. It ranges as high as 20 percent or more in a lot of districts. So it's an important part of how those districts work, and we're not getting our money's worth.

Q Bruce, back on today's topic. Some Republicans might argue that for many families, this issue comes down to finances -- who can stay home and who can't, based on their own family income. Mothers or fathers may want to stay home, but they need to hold down a job, and that's what keeps them away from their kids, be they young kids or teenagers. And they say one of the remedies there would be tax cuts, either tax credits for child care or lower taxes through marriage penalty, or some other forms. Giving them more money would give them more financial flexibility. That would allow them to spend more time with their kids. What's the administration's response to that?

MR. REED: Our view is that we want to give parents as many choices as we possibly can, and it makes a big difference whether the economy is going strong or not. We have put in place an economic strategy that values fiscal discipline, which has helped to keep the economy booming at the strongest level in memory, and that that is the key thing for working families in order to make sure that they can afford to make the kind of choices that they'd like to make.

Q There was some legislation a few years ago that -- the Flex Time bill -- that proponents said would have given parents choice. I believe the President vetoed that?

MR. REED: No, Congress never passed it. We offered our own flex-time proposal, and Congress had its own, but I don't think much has happened on that since 1996.

Q But the administration did oppose that particular bill?

MR. REED: We had concerns about provisions in that legislation that would have gutted the 40-hour work week, and would have put employers in a position to demand 60 or 80 hours of work a week. And Major, can I just add one point, which is that we do have a series of tax cuts in our budget that are designed to help working families, for example, on child care and some other targeted tax cuts.

Q Bruce, on the -- back to the executive order, now. I'm just trying to get a sense of what leverage it does give parents. If employers still have the right to set hours, couldn't -- I mean, the President said the message is no glass ceiling for parents, but if the employer can set the hours, couldn't a department head say, hey, I need my deputy here until eight o'clock at night, and you have kids, you can't be here until eight o'clock at night. Therefore you don't get the promotion?

MR. REED: Well, we've all been through these challenges, as you have. This is only one piece of a larger strategy to enable parents to have more choices and choose more time with their children. So this, in and of itself, will not solve the entire problem of the time crunch for working families. We think it's a helpful step for parents generally, but there's far more that government needs to do, and frankly, that businesses need to do to give parents more choices.

Q You don't think it's going to reduce working hours at the White House at all? (Laughter.)

MR. REED: No sign of that yet.

Q Bruce, picking up on John's question a moment ago about states deserving some share of the credit on progress on education, isn't it true that many states were much more at the forefront than this administration on the question of charter schools? They had their own state laws that were strongly focused on creating charter schools, that sent strong signals to their school districts to move forward on this reform track? And that they were -- these states were much more in front on this issue than the federal government was, or the administration specifically?

MR. REED: Well, first, back up. This tour is not about taking credit. This tour is about what more we need to do to reform schools and to lift up performance in our poorest schools. The President has been working on this issue for 20 years, but he would be the first to admit that we have a long way to go as a country.

And one of the things we'd like to do on this tour is take you to places, states and communities, that are doing the right thing and that are doing very well. So we're going to start out tomorrow in Owensboro, Kentucky. We're going to Audubon Elementary School, which is a poor school that six years ago had miserable student performance -- five percent of the school's students did well on state tests in reading; 12 percent in state tests on writing. Today, 70 percent are doing well in reading, and 88 percent in writing, because the state has focused on low-performing schools. It has poured resources into them. It has raised expectations in those schools. And it's the kind of success story that we'd like to see other states adopt.

At our second stop in Davenport, Iowa, we're going to be highlighting the school construction issue, going to a 100-year-old school where the lockers are so old they're actually wooden antiques, and the chemistry lab is even more so. And then on Thursday, we're going to a charter school -- the first charter school in the country, in St. Paul, Minnesota, which -- you've heard the President say that when we took office there was only one charter school and now there are 1,700. And that's been a partnership. The federal government has spent about $400 million in seed money for charter schools, and been a helpful engine to it. But of course it wouldn't have happened without a lot of excitement and interest at the local level.

And then finally, Thursday afternoon we're going to go to another poor elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, which has turned itself around with a variety of initiatives that we support, like after-school and class size and so on.

Q But on the question of charter schools, when you say the President arrived there was one; there are 1,700 now. The implicit message is, look at all the things we've done for charter schools. And my question was --

MR. REED: Well, here's what we did --

Q -- hasn't this been a more organic effort, driven by many states, as opposed to something where the administration was creating a sort of new federal approach to education?

MR. REED: Well, in 1994 we passed a program that provided seed money for charter schools. And as I said, we've provided $400 million over the last five years to charter schools. And that's made a difference. You know, the hardest thing about a charter school is getting started. They have trouble affording facilities. It's like any startup business. So the federal assistance has helped. And it's an important sign of a partnership between federal government and state and local communities about how we really can reform the educational system together.

Q Bruce, all four of these states are either swing states, or they're states where Gore should be doing better and is having a little more difficulty than he expected. How were these states chosen? Was there any input from the Vice President's staff? And is there some politics involved?

MR. REED: The -- we picked states that made sense for our school reform tour. Kentucky is one of the great untold success stories about targeting failing schools. Governor Patton has a fabulous record, and we wanted to highlight that. And in Iowa, Senator Harkin is a leading proponent of school construction. We're actually going to the Quad Cities area, and there are five cities in the Quad Cities that all have school construction needs.

St. Paul, we're going there because it's the first charter school in America. And Columbus has a terrific mayor with a host of good educational policies that we support. So, I'm sure there's no state that we could go to where you wouldn't ask that question, but what the President wanted to do was highlight low-performing schools around the country that have turned around because of what education reformers are doing.

Q But were there any discussions with the Vice President's office about this?

MR. REED: As far as picking the sites and so on, no. I mean, we're all part of a team, so everyone knows what's going on, but -- but no.

Q I mean, to sharpen the question a little bit more, George Bush's first education ads also ran in some of the media areas where this tour will take place. Are you saying there was absolutely no political calculation whatsoever in the locations chosen for this tour?

MR. REED: Well, I think that we wanted to take you to poor schools, rural schools, places that you wouldn't normally get to as White House correspondents. Just as we've done with the New Markets Tour, we wanted to show some of the places that have done well, and that reflect on other places that still need work.

Q A simple yes or no would suffice.

MR. REED: I can't remember what the question was. (Laughter.)

Q I'll be glad to ask it again, Bruce. Are you saying there was no political calculation whatsoever in choosing these locations, given that they're swing states, given that George Bush, when he debuted his education message, debuted it in some of the areas precisely where this tour will take place?

MR. REED: Well, the purpose of the trip is to make progress with the Congress on the two debates I talked about. And we want to take our case to the country. That's what we're doing. But we want it to have immediate results in the debate over ESEA, and the debate over the budget. So this is about achieving the President's agenda. He's not on the ballot this year, and we'd like to get as much done on school reform before we leave.

Q Bruce, on accountability, you would acknowledge that the Republicans talk about accountability, too. They just want to go about it a different way with their vouchers and choice, school choice, right?

MR. REED: That's right. They do talk about accountability. Ironically, they have always opposed federal efforts to require accountability. So, for example, we want every state and school district to end social promotion, to target failing schools, to require that teachers are fully qualified. And they reject those notions -- and in fact, they've put forward legislation that would walk back from the accountability measure that we put in place back in 1994.

MR. KENNEDY: Thank you.

MR. REED: Thanks.

END 2:30 P.M. EDT