George Bush photo

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With High School Students From the Close Up Foundation

March 29, 1989

The President. Welcome to the White House. Famous personalities roam the corridors of this famous house. Play your cards right and you can see our dog, Millie, in a few minutes, coming down the stairs. [Laughter] But I'm delighted that you all are here in Washington. And I hope you're gaining an understanding of something that really matters, and that is good government.

I met today with a very prestigious group headed by Paul Volcker, and many others -- the former Secretary of State, Mr. Muskie; and several Ambassadors; and Bruce Laingen, who you may remember was held hostage for a while over there in Iran. And the thrust of their report was the need to encourage more people to be involved in government service. And I hope you'll have a chance to see it. I'm sure there will be some press on it tomorrow.

But in addition to that -- and I want to encourage in every way I can those who serve their country, whether it's military or civilian, in the civil service, or wherever else -- I want to encourage that kind of service. But also, particularly in a group like this, to urge you to save some time in your lives for the political process. Some feel it's a demeaning line of work, and I happen to think that it is absolutely fundamental. Because 200 years ago, a great experiment really began on this continent that began with the profound idea that the power should reside with the people. And that sounds, I'm sure, to you who are bright and able students, as perhaps trite or a cliche. But it isn't when you look at today's world.

We take for granted that the power comes from the people in this country. But it isn't true in some of the totalitarian systems. Certainly, it's not true in the Marxist system. And it's fascinating now to see what's happening in the Soviet system as they lighten up a little and begin to have the elective process that we've taken for granted throughout our history. But the fundamental principle of freedom that built our democracy has served us well for these two centuries, and it's all the more vital that we preserve the freedom as we look to the future.

Some historians have called the 20th century the American century, but the 21st century is less than a dozen years away. And I've been talking with several different groups now about the future, charting a course for the next American century. And really, it's your future and your century. And so, we've been talking about what we as a government can do to not only set the agenda but what we can accomplish now that will guarantee that that century be more peaceful, more productive, and certainly a century in which the freedoms that I talked about earlier are provided -- or preserved.

So, I guess we could say that everything we do now today with the Congress in terms of legislation is investing in your future. And we've got to solve some short-range problems that I'm sure you've heard a lot about -- the budget deficit, because it does affect your future -- how big a mortgage on your future if we continue to spend beyond our means today. Drugs in the streets: If we don't do better in battling this scourge of narcotics, it has an adverse affect on your future. Threats to the environment: We're seeing now an oil spill up in Alaska. But there's many, many other -- global warming and things -- that really do seem remote, but have a vital affect on the kind of century you're going to be living in. So, we have to address those problems, and that's the role of a President, and certainly it's the role of the Congress. And I'm still intent on working with the Congress to move forward as we get closer and closer to the next century.

I think from what I'm told about you all that you are much more aware of these things than the average young person in this country. This Close Up program is a great place to hone your ability to think, to question, to form reasoned opinions. And I want to find out about that in a minute because I'm told this has been billed for me at least as a listening session. And so I hope you will give me your ideas, and I'll try to conduct the discussion in such a way that you feel free to do that.

When you understand our political traditions and the questions of public policy, you can ensure that we preserve what works and that we work for change where it's needed. In my book, that's the best kind of citizenship. Government is not a spectator sport. You've got to be involved -- needs people, bright people like you to make it succeed. And so, you have it within you all to be leaders in the next century wherever you decide to apply these talents. I don't want to say just public service or just politics because one of the themes that I'm talking about a lot and believe in is this concept of a better educated America. And that leads me to encourage those in the teaching profession to be the very best and then to encourage people to go into that profession as well. It takes hard work; it means asking questions of people; it means looking deeper. It means investing time and energy to learn all you can, now and in the future. You never stop learning. Heaven knows, I hope I don't. We've had fascinating meetings today on a wide array of subjects that -- important to expand your horizons, and they've been very helpful to me.

Education is all about this. And I've been proposing new ways to make the schools more responsive. I really believe that choice is important. Choice -- parental choice, student choice -- can lead to excellence not just in the school that's chosen, but in those that maybe aren't chosen. So we've got to find ways to encourage choice.

I want to encourage excellence through programs like merit schools that some of you are familiar with -- giving awards to outstanding teachers. The major responsibility, incidentally, as you know, in education lies at the local and State level. An overwhelming percentage of the funds come from the local and the State level. But we can, even in these tough budget times, give a system of awards for the outstanding teachers, thus giving them hope, and others seeing them trying to aspire to higher levels of production and levels of concern for the kids.

So, I believe in accountability. I think the educational process is somewhat -- been somewhat devoid of accounting for its successes and failures, and I would like to see that. Over the past year, I've asked teachers and parents and administrators, political leaders at all levels to get involved. And they are. And I think it's beginning to show what's been going on the last few years in striving for excellence.

But you know, these are your schools, and they exist to serve you. And you have the right to demand the best from your teachers and from your schools. And you can expect excellence from your schools, and you can make them work for you. So where school is concerned, it's not a matter of like it or leave it. It's like it or help change it. And you're the bright ones; I hope that you'll never lose interest in the school system itself.

I wanted to meet with you. I have some ideas -- these are what I've spelled out here on education and others, as well. I am told that you have ideas of your own, so why don't we get ahead with the give-and-take part of this, where you tell me what's on your minds. I noticed some notes. It's always formidable when you see notes having been written down here. [Laughter] But it's a good time to speak to me and I guess, with these cameras listening, be sure never to end a sentence with a preposition, because it will be duly reported all across the country by these guardians of the -- [laughter].

But nevertheless, really, feel relaxed about it, and I hope you'll fire away. And I guess I get to sit down and listen. I'll conduct this, but just go ahead.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Molly Evans, and I'm from Wooster High School in Wooster, Ohio. I'd like to thank you first for allowing Close Up the opportunity to question you and thank you -- --

The President. No, I'm questioning you. You've got it wrong, Molly. Go ahead. [Laughter]

Federal Role in Education

Q. Okay. Mr. President, in the past, the schools have traditionally held jurisdiction over the educational issues. But now that it's become a serious national problem, do you believe that the Federal Government should have more power on making decisions over the educational issues?

The President. No. I don't believe that the power in determining curriculum, in determining teachers' pay, in determining standards for schools ought to be set by the Federal Government. I believe in the genius of diversity. I believe that one set of standards has much more applicability to one area than to another. And so I don't think the Federal Government should be looked to as the final arbiter, or the one that's going to set the policies for the local school districts.

I believe instead in more parental participation. I believe in local school boards having the final authority and State departments of education having their say. And the Federal Government, which I think provides 7 percent of the funding, as opposed to 93 percent coming from other sources, has about that percentage in terms of dictating things. I don't see the Federal Government in a dictatorial role; I don't see it as the dominant role. I see this pulpit here -- what Teddy Roosevelt referred to as the bully pulpit -- being used to encourage excellence, encourage choice, encourage the good teachers, but not dictate to the schools.


Q. My name is Jennifer Bean. I'm from Danvers High School, Danvers, Massachusetts. I know Mrs. Bush is involved in the campaign against illiteracy. There are many high school students that graduate from high school and are functionally illiterate. As the "Education President," what are you going to do to eliminate this problem?

The President. Again, I don't think the Federal Government can eliminate it. I do think it becomes the responsibility of everybody. And we are unveiling a program in a week or two that I've talked about earlier called Youth Entering Service. It's a concept, a concept of one kid, a bright kid -- you perhaps -- helping somebody in another area that doesn't have the advantage that you've had in terms of education.

My wife is involved in this whole concept of fighting against illiteracy, and in that, she's encouraging corporations and others to be thoroughly involved. You may have seen some of the pro bono advertising on a couple of the networks in terms of fighting against illiteracy.

So, I think the Federal Government has a substantial role. I think in the programs the Federal Government does do, that it can put emphasis on stamping out illiteracy. But again, I'd be misleading you if I had you believe that the problem could be solved from the White House or from Congress, itself. It can't be; it's got to have -- scratch one newsman -- [laughter]. Did anybody get hurt? But that's the way I look at it. And so I will be encouraging this hortatory, encouraging in every way we can.

And when I talk about accountability -- promoting those who -- you might be classmates -- that you know can't read. It doesn't do that kid any good -- needs special training, special help, special concern. So we've got to do better on it, but the Federal Government can help, can exhort, but can't solve it alone.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. My name is David Hardin. I'm from Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The President. Where's your suntan? [Laughter]

Q. I get sunburned. [Laughter]

The President. Do you?

War on Drugs

Q. The drug problem that's infiltrated the United States educational system has proven to be a catalyst that's destroying the American youth. What do you think needs to be done to solve this problem?

The President. Well, we're making a whole new push against the scourge of drugs. The Congress passed legislation calling for a drug czar. You're all bright students of history, I'm sure. And why we use the term "czar" in the United States to determine a strong leader, I don't know.

But nevertheless, we're implementing that legislation as best we can in the executive branch. The appointment of Bill Bennett, who, I think set very high standards for education, shows that I think that a lot of the drug problem can be solved through the demand side of the equation -- through teaching, through education, through getting peer to stand with peer and say, "No, we can't go forward with it."

We've got to change the culture that condoned the use of narcotics. Yesterday, I challenged through a meeting somewhat like this, challenged the entertainment media who, heretofore, has almost condoned narcotics by emphasizing the silly side of somebody being high on some substance or another. So we've got to change the culture, we've got to change the demand, and at the same time we've got to have much more enforcement of laws. We may need new laws, but we have existing laws that have not been enforced in terms of drug use. We're going to have to expand our prison space because it is frustrating to a law enforcement official who lays her or his life on the line to make a bust and then see that person out on the street again because there is no room in the prison. I believe severe sentencing is called for for drug kingpins. We've got to do more on the sentencing side, more on the enforcement side, and then we've got to do -- and education side -- and then we're trying to step up our cooperation with South American countries, particularly in terms of interdiction.

Somebody asked the question yesterday, and maybe it's on you all's minds about closing the borders, of fortifying the borders. We can't do that in the United States. In the first place, the borders are too long; we don't have that much money. Secondly, that isn't the concept we want with friendly countries -- Mexico to our south, Canada to the north. But we've got to do better in terms of interdiction.

Last point -- we are not going to solve the drug problem by stopping the flow. It's not going to be solved -- in my view, it's going to be -- that'll help, but we've got to do more on the demand side. Both sides, incidentally, our new drug czar, Bill Bennett, is working on. And for those of you who follow the intricacies of government, it isn't that easy because he is dealing with the Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General and the Secretary of State. And they are statutorily in command of their departments. So, he comes in, working for the President with a Cabinet rank, but without the statutory power of some of the Cabinet officers. So, he's got a job of persuasion and coordination. But we've got a man -- if anybody can do it, he can.

Federal Role in Education

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. My name is Shawndra Miles. I attend Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, California. In recent years, there have been significant cutbacks in Federal money for education. I would like to know how would you address this problem, since the students today are leaders of tomorrow?

The President. In the first place, we have a crunch. I think your figures are wrong. I don't think there have been substantial cutbacks. I don't think there have been cutbacks. I think the budget for the Department of Education is higher than it was 8 years ago -- or 6 years ago -- and will be this time. There have been some programs that have been curtailed. There has been some means testing in terms of student loans.

Let me give you an example of that. I don't believe as President that the Federal Government has an obligation to pay for the education of all kids that are qualified to go to college. That's my philosophy. That's what I ran on with this kind of an underpinning of that in terms of being elected by the people of the United States to be President. I do think that the Federal Government has a role in helping those who can't afford to get to college. And so, tightening up on the means test for student loans, for example, was considered by some to be cutting educational funds. And I'm sure some programs have been taken out.

But generally speaking, I just come back to the fact -- and I don't know that you all knew this, and I'm pretty sure I'm right on the figure -- 93 percent comes from all sources, and 7 percent of the funds come from the Federal Government. So in times of tough budget money, I've got to get this budget deficit down. The best hope, antidote to poverty, is a job, and the best way to have a job is to have a vibrant economy. And the way to do that is to be sure these interest rates don't go sky high. And this gets into the whole economic question, but all of which -- it comes back to me as President in terms of priority: Get the budget deficit down. And that means we can't spend all the money that I'd like for that 7 percent.

There are some programs I'd like to fund more. But somebody asked me yesterday -- I don't think it's come up yet today -- on the question of dropouts. One of my answers to that is, do as much as we possibly can for Head Start. I think Head Start is a good program. And so we've increased, in tight financial times, the funds for Head Start. So, you know, it's like -- I don't know what would be a parallel in your lives -- is how you sort out priorities. But I am faced with a strong Secretary of Education who says we've got to spend more for this program or that. I've got a strong budget director on the other hand saying, "Wait a minute! We can't do that if your objective is to get the budget deficit down." So, you just do the best you can, and then you exhort. You encourage the private sector and the States and everybody to do as much as they can. No clear answer, and a very tough and good question.

You had one here, and then I'll go in the back. We're cutting out all the back bench guys. Go ahead. Did you have a question?

Q. Me?

The President. Yes, I thought I saw your hand. Yes?

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Janel, if you're too polite in life you get stomped on. [Laughter] You're doing just great, but I didn't want you to have it. I thought you thought I had recognized you. Go ahead.

Q. My name is Janel McCurtis. I'm from Business Management Center in Dallas, Texas. And I was wondering how you feel about the Federal Government playing a more -- a role in education.

The President. More of a role? Well, as I say, I think it's got to be State and local, the way our system works, because I don't want that highly centralized control. I've confessed here to Shawndra I'd like to see us be able to do more things, but I don't want the role -- I don't want education to be federalized. That's the fundamental philosophical underpinning that I have with me as I approach public education and private education. I don't want the Federal Government to tell you, your school board, or your teachers what you're going to get taught in class. I don't want them to set the pay from on high -- Washington, DC. We don't know much about Dallas. I do, coming from Houston.

But that's my philosophy, and I think it's right. I think -- it's federalism, decentralization. We're strong that way. And I probably, when I was little, was wondering, why do we have all these different overlapping functions of the State government? And then I realized that it preserves our Union and strengthens our system by diversity -- Scottsdale having a different answer than Los Angeles, and a different answer than Dallas and wherever else it is.

Who's got some in the back? We've got to -- fire away, you two guys back there.

Q. Hello, Mr. President. My name is Joseph Thrill, and I go to the Hawaii Preparatory Academy in Hawaii. And I was wondering, I go to a private school and my parents pay tuition directly to the school. But yet part of their taxes which they pay to the Federal Government go to the public school system, even though I do not attend a public school. Should they get a tax break on that?

The President. No, they shouldn't. And I think it is the obligation of all taxpayers to support a public education system. We want it to be the best. And I think in many ways it is the best, although I'm disturbed when I see some kids underachieving -- not being able to identify where the United States is on a globe or something of that nature. But, no, I think that that's your parents' choice, and I think that they shouldn't.

I have been intrigued with the concept of tuition tax credits. And some say, "Well, should that include parochial schools?" And I've said yes, but the problem again is that we are -- and that gets really to your philosophical underpinning of your question -- we can't afford to do that. So, I think that everybody should support the public school system. And then, if on top of that, your parents think that they want to shell out, in addition to the tax money, tuition money, that's their right, and that should be respected. But I don't think they should get a break for that.

Study Abroad

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm Max Kalhammet, from Cairo, Egypt. And recently there's been a lot of publicity about the advantages of studying abroad, especially in your college career. The advantages would be traveling, being exposed to new cultures, et cetera. With your interest in reviving education domestically, do you support this?

The President. Yes, I support it, but again, we're talking about sparse funds. Not only do I support it, but I think it is enormously useful for our foreign affairs, and for understanding around the world about the United States of America. So, I strongly support it.

One of the things in my background that really helped shape my life a lot was living in China. Right after the Cultural Revolution, or right before the renaissance, or before the capitalistic -- or quasi -- you've got to be careful when you talk about China -- quasi-capitalistic experimentation -- incentive, moving away from the commune system for farm. And living there was very helpful to me and broadening -- I was then Ambassador -- but broadening out my own horizons, understanding the importance of China in the world scheme of things.

And I think it's true for students. I think not only does the student himself or herself gain a dimension on the world it might not have otherwise, but I think the people with whom you interact abroad do. And I strongly favor, as much as we can afford it, bringing kids from other countries over here. I believe firmly that any student that comes to the United States can no longer return to his or her country without some respect for democracy -- for the underpinnings that I talked about in the remarks -- you can't do it. You come out of a totalitarian system and you see the freedoms that you and I take for granted every day in our lives -- see them every day one way or another. You see the bounty of this country, and you see the concern that Americans have for their fellow American, and it's bound to make an impact on them.

And I hear all kinds of griping about the United States all over the world. And I've traveled to I don't know how many countries. Now, I would guess -- well, as Vice President, it was 85 just in that one job. And then I did business all around the world, from Brunei to the Persian Gulf to South America. And you hear complaints about the Americans, and you sit around and you interact. But you also have the sense that people say, yes, we may be griping about it or criticizing, but we'd like a little piece of the action.

And the more those students come here on the kind of thing you're talking about, the more understanding they have about us. And it is a really remarkable, remarkable thing. And I saw that most when I was the Ambassador at the United Nations, interacting with then the Ambassadors from 134 countries. And we were, you know, the host country. You got to know a lot of them.

I know the point you're bringing up is, I guess by the question, is very, very important. And so I would encourage not only travel abroad, but I would try in every way I can to do as much as we can do in terms of support for these people going to different countries and bringing students here. A lot go to the Soviet Union. They have a very active program of taking people, particularly from Eastern Europe -- but it's much more widely spread than that -- to the Soviet Union. And until recently, I think that could have been in some ways counterproductive. They have a big propaganda thing in their education, major propaganda offensive. But then, when those kids get back home and then they interact with freer countries, it rubs off pretty easily. Today, in the Soviet Union, they're still doing quite a bit of this, and I'm sure that the students going there see it ferment a change that's taking place through both perestroika and the openness and glasnost.

So, I would encourage people doing it. I would encourage those foundations -- International Education Institute, and those things that help bring people to live with American families. The Federal Government has some role in this, and I think it's very important. And I wish I had time to ask you what your view is because I would expect it would parallel.

I mean, I have been to Egypt, and I think there is a good feeling in Egypt about the United States. There are some concerns about certain aspects of our policy that I'll hear about next Monday and Tuesday when President Mubarak is here right in this very house. But I can tell you -- here he is, the President of that country, coming in for Sadat, and there's a certain feeling -- the United States can effect change. The United States can move things forward in the peace process. The United States has a certain economic system that we'd like to aspire to in Egypt.

And so never apologize for it. And share it, spread it around as best you can -- goodwill that comes from being very bright, bright kids. Share it with foreigners as much as you can because we are, I'll still say -- and I got accused of being a little bit overly patriotic, but I've been to these, a lot of them -- we are the freest, we are the most honorable and caring country, I think, in the whole world. And so we ought to have others understand that.

And I will say this, that as President -- you know, they ask, "Well, what is your aim, priorities?" We talk here about education and civics and all of that, but I want to try hard to enhance world peace. We talk about a new century. How old are you, Eric?

Q. I'm 17.

The President. Okay, 17. In the year 2000, you'll be 28. I'd like to think that because we were here and worked the problem hard, that the world will be somewhat more peaceful. And let me say this: The changes in the Soviet Union are encouraging. I'm an optimist about it. But if those changes keep going forward, you guys have a much better chance to -- I don't need that -- [laughter] -- to live in a more harmonious world. So we'll try our hardest, and you all stay involved.

Mr. Janger. Mr. President, on behalf of all of us at the Close Up Foundation, these young people and young people throughout the United States, I know you understand how wonderfully motivating your exchange of ideas has been. Your special focus on education is inspiring, and we thank you for your time today.

Note: The President spoke at 2:18 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Paul Volcker, Chairman of the National Commission on Public Service. The event was broadcast live on the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network. The participants were part of the Close Up Foundation program, a nonpartisan educational foundation providing secondary school students opportunities to study the American political system. Stephen A. Janger was president of the foundation.

George Bush, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With High School Students From the Close Up Foundation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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