Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Participants in the National Conference of the National Association of Student Councils in Shawnee Mission, Kansas

June 29, 1983

The President. Well, thank you, Bob Goodling, and thank all of you. I'm delighted to be back in Kansas and to bring you a piece of breaking news, truly good news. I spoke last night in my press conference about that unfair tax cap that was being pushed by some of the liberal spenders in Washington, and I promised that the tax cap would not become law. In fact, I would have been prepared with that pencil for a veto. [Laughter] Well, I'm pleased to report that the drive to increase taxes on millions of hard-working married couples, small businesses, and family farms, many of them right here in Kansas, has just been beaten back and defeated in the Senate this morning, 55 to 45. Now, I realize that you are from all over the country, but speaking of our host State here, Kansas, one of the champions in the battle for that victory was that outstanding Kansas Senator, Bob Dole. And a vote for it was the other Kansas Senator, Nancy Kassebaum. The full 10-percent tax cut will go into effect, as we promised, day after tomorrow, July 1st.

We're on the right path. America's economy is moving. This morning we learned the leading economic indicators were up another 1.2 percent in May, and that's the 11th straight monthly increase in those indicators. And just yesterday, we raised again our gross estimate for 1983. This stronger growth could shrink the deficit by up to $15 billion. And we intend to keep America moving forward, whacking down that deficit with higher growth and spending restraint, but not with higher taxes on hardworking people. I just thought that we could open with a news note of that kind.

But I understand that today does mark an historic first; that every NASC Conference has its share of presidents, but I believe this is the first time that a President of the United States has attended. And it's about time. In fact, you could say that for me it's a long overdue arrival.

And I was going to surprise you by telling you that I was the former president of the Dixon, Illinois High School student body. I should have known that someone would have beat me to it already. [Laughter] But I should have been at one of these conferences a long—well, years ago. There's only one slight hitch. I was student body president at Dixon High a little too early, several years before there was an NASC. [Laughter] It was founded in 1931. In politics, they would say that I peaked too soon. [Laughter] And, unfortunately, what with sports and part-time work, I never quite made the honor society. Now, I won't say that was a long time ago; let me just put it this way: Not only wasn't there a nuclear freeze movement back then, they hadn't even split the atom yet. [Laughter]

But even so after all these years, I remember vividly my days as student body president at Dixon and, a little later, as chairman of the student body senate at Eureka College. I suppose you could say that those two jobs were my first exposure to elective office. The issues may have been different, but the lessons of leadership were the same.

Hard work, a knowledge of the facts, the willingness to listen and be understanding, a strong sense of duty and direction, and a determination to do your best on behalf of the people you serve—these are the hallmarks of good leadership at every level, whether the political arena is high school student council or the capital of the mightiest nation on Earth. I've tried both. And frankly, I had more fun in student government. [Laughter]

Your duties in student government, like the efforts you put into your individual studies, are worth it. They may seem heavy at times, and they are a big responsibility. But it's by accepting duty and responsibility that we learn and grow. The dividends your experience will pay in lessons learned, in pride taken in a job well done, is a kind of basic training course for future leadership. These are things that will keep on rewarding you all your lives.

There's something else that I'm sure each one of you has come to believe from personal experience. I know I have. It's the sentiment summed up in the motto of this conference: "Leadership Begins in the Heart." You can't get out of your public service more than you put into it in terms of caring, commitment, and dedication—the most precious assets that you can bring to any job.

Teddy Roosevelt once called the Presidency a "bully pulpit." Well, by that he meant that it offered an ideal platform for getting important messages and ideas across to the American people. That was what I had in mind a few weeks ago when I launched what may be one of the most important initiatives of this / Administration—a great national debate on the future of American education.

It's an important debate, because you're important, because the degree to which we can improve American education now will have a big effect on the opportunities you and your fellow students will have in the years ahead, your chance to play a productive part in the great adventure in new ideas, new technology, and new opportunities that await your generation.

We care about education because we care about you. And we care about you not just because you're our children and grandchildren, but because you're the future of America, the ones who will carry the torch of freedom and idealism into the 21st century, the ones that will keep the American Dream alive and, in your turn, pass it on to future generations of young Americans.

But you can't do that job, you can't achieve that destiny, without a good education. As Woodrow Wilson, a great statesman who was also a great educator, once said, without popular education, "no government which rests on popular action can long endure."

And that's why the great debate on the quality of our schools is building today in the Nation. And that's why it's so important. I've been speaking with parents, with teachers, with school principals, superintendents, and State and local officials—all people with a vital interest in putting our schools back on the track to excellence. But I feel no group has a fresher awareness of the problems in our schools, a greater understanding of the grass roots issues involved, or a deeper personal interest in the outcome of this debate than you, the student leaders, who are gathered here today.

You represent the generation which is paying the price for past mistakes in education. You've shown your willingness to accept the responsibilities of leadership. And I hope that you will stay involved as your communities sort out their priorities and begin anew to fulfill the promise of a good education that this nation has always offered its people.

I'm sure the recent report of the Commission on Excellence in Education wasn't news to you. Many of you come from classrooms where teachers are struggling against mounting odds to maintain order and to teach. You and your older brothers and sisters have often seen basic, required courses replaced by electives and homework reduced or ignored. And you know that too many of your classmates will graduate from high school without some of the skills they'll need to realize their fullest potential as citizens. They'll enter a world of great opportunity, but some of them haven't been taught the things they will need to take advantage of the opportunities that are available.

Technology has been advancing at a faster rate than ever before in human history. All over America, even in cities with high unemployment among young people, employers are running page after page of want ads offering food, well-paying jobs for people educated in math and science. They're also spending billions to train people to control the sophisticated equipment in modern factories and offices. But they need more people with a solid background in reading, writing, calculating, and thinking—people practiced in the art of modern learning.

I sometimes wonder what future historians will think looking back on our era. We live in a time when rapid, startling advances are being made in science; when men and women are traveling in space; when the secrets of nature are being unlocked in laboratories; when electronic computers have revolutionized everything from space travel to home appliances.

How will posterity reconcile these facts with the clear evidence that too many of our schools are teaching less? I find it puzzling myself, but particularly so when we know that during this 20-year period of decline in the quality of education, the cost of educating a student in the public schools has doubled—and that is in constant dollars, not inflated dollars.

A major factor in that decline has been the unfortunate side effects of the Federal Government's efforts to aid the schools: the transfer of authority in education from the States and communities of the Nation to Washington, D.C. History shows that during the time when America built the greatest system of education the world has ever seen—and it is still a great system—the work, the planning, and the money were all supplied by States and local school districts with no Federal interference. Authority to conduct education had been strictly left to the States. Schools were run by elected school boards according to requirements set by State governments, and they answered directly to the people they served.

And then about 20 years ago, Congress passed the first large-scale aid to the public schools. It's not hard to understand why. School systems were struggling desperately to serve the children of the post-World War II baby boom, and millions of affluent taxpayers were leaving the cities for the suburbs. State school finance formulas couldn't keep up with the shifts in population. But, as some of us had warned, with Federal aid came Federal control, the growing demand for reports and detailed applications for all the various categories of aid the Federal Government eventually offered.

Over the same period, the schools were charged by the Federal courts with leading in the correcting of long-standing injustices in our society—racial segregation, sex discrimination, lack of opportunity for the handicapped. Perhaps there was simply too much to do in too little time, even for the most dedicated teachers and administrators. But there's no question that somewhere along the line many schools lost sight of their main purpose: Giving our students the quality teaching they need and deserve took a back seat to other objectives.

We're trying to turn that around and with your help, we can. I'm happy to say that once again our schools are beginning to focus in on excellence in education. The question is no longer what should schools be doing, but how they can prepare students to take an active and rewarding part in the age of high technology that we've entered.

Our goal is as clear as it is vital—the best possible education for all our citizens. And I intend to work with all who share that goal.

If the record of the past 20 years proves anything, it is that money alone is not a solution to the problems in our schools. First, we must have agreement on goals and plans and how to reach those goals. And this process must involve the whole community, particularly the parents and students of the Nation.

I commend to all of you the report of the Commission on Excellence in Education. "A Nation at Risk" is its title. It is clear, it's readable, and makes recommendations that every community should consider in its planning to revitalize its schools. I'll just mention one of these—the recommendation on high school curriculum. The Commission recommends for all high school graduates a foundation in what it calls "the Five New Basics": 4. years of English, 3 years of mathematics, 3 years of science, 3 years of social studies, and a half a year of computer science. And for students planning to attend college, it recommends at least 2 years of foreign language in high school.

Now, I'd be interested to know how many of you student leaders feel that you'll have the equivalent of that background behind you when you go to college. Well, I see the hands going up—great. That's great. And your work is cut out for you.

When you go back to your communities, I hope you'll do so with a sense that you're part of something very important that is happening in this country. America's finally waking up to a threat to this nation caused by neglect of the most important function of our schools—teaching the skills that people need to succeed in life.

The problem is clear. It's up to you as leaders to become a part of the solution. Together, generation to generation, from coast to coast, we can make American education great again. And we're counting on you to help in that.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead, but you can see maybe I didn't learn all that I did learn, because I understand now that we're going to have at least a brief period here of some questions and answers. And I don't know how this is programmed—I understood that there were going to be microphones and-


Q. Mr. President, my name is Tracy Park, and I'm from Centerville, Iowa. My question is: You are on record as favoring the abolition of the Department of Education. Since the publication of "A Nation at Risk," the educational commission's report, education appears to be a higher priority with you. Does this mean that you have changed your mind about the importance of a Department of Education?

The President. No. I have never favored-and did not favor when it was started-making a Cabinet agency out of that because, once again, remember the Federal Government contributes about 8 percent of the cost of education. The rest comes from the local and State governments.

And I just felt that elevating that department-there are legitimate functions that the Federal Government should fund, and some of those programs were already in existence but under other departments of the government—I felt that this was giving the Federal Government more importance and enabling it to interfere more with what should be education controlled at the local and State level.

There are those in Washington who actually believe that we should change the whole system into a single Federal educational system, not recognizing the great diversity of all of our States. So, our intention never was to eliminate what government was doing, other than eliminate the unnecessary interference.

I think I could sum it up—Secretary Bell, here, is in sympathy with this. He is the Cabinet officer who's working, trying to eliminate his own department, but not to eliminate some of the necessary Federal functions. But I think I could sum it up for you in telling you that some of the paperwork that administrators in your schools know about, that are forced on them by the Federal Government in return for the 8 percent—a lot more paperwork than is forced on them by the governments that pay the 92 percent.

And one example was the teacher that realized one day that the form that he kept getting, and kept filling out, and sending in, asked some of the same questions over and over again—that once should have been enough—such as what was the size of his classroom? So, he got curious as to whether anybody in Washington ever read those reports. So he began filling it out and increasing, each time, the size of his classroom, until he got it up to the size of the Coliseum— [laughter] —and no protest from Washington. So then he went the other way, and he started reducing it down to where his classroom was smaller than a steamer trunk and still no word from Washington. And that's when he decided, "Why fill them out? No one's reading them."

But this is the type of excess bureaucracy that we can do without. See, the Federal Government has to learn—and we're trying to teach them—the Federal Government has to learn, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Federal Aid to Education

Q. Mr. President, my name is Darren McCullough, from [inaudible]—Louisiana. And my question is: Besides the opportunities already available, is there going to be an attempt to broaden the availability of Federal aid, grants, and loans for eligible college students?

The President. I think that we—and to those of you who may have to help find your way through school, let me tell you it wasn't all bad. One of the better jobs I ever had at Eureka College was washing dishes in the girls' dormitory. [Laughter]

Yes, there is, I think, a misperception that in some way we have been trimming back on programs of that kind. What we found when we got to Washington was that some of those programs—as they spread and as Washington tries to help everybody—were actually going to people that didn't have a legitimate excuse to be getting help at their fellow taxpayers' expense. Their incomes were such—and this ranged all the way from school lunches, subsidized school lunches, on up to college loans. And what we did was change the requirements and increase the number of grants and loans and help and even school lunches that were available at the bottom of the earning scale, down for the people who had the least ability to afford this kind of help for their children or their young sons and daughters in college. And this is still our goal and what we're trying to do.

But there has not been—in the sense of actually reducing the help, no, it has been a shifting of it from people that were above a certain percentage of income as related to the poverty level down to those who truly needed the help.

Civil Rights

Q. My name is Jerome Bower, and I'm from Capital Heights, Maryland. And my question is: You recently appointed several persons to the Civil Rights Commission who do not advocate the use of busing to integrate public schools. This, along with your / Administration's lackluster enforcement of civil rights laws passed in the 1960's, has led many Americans to believe that you are willing to send us back to the times before the Montgomery bus boycott and Dr. King's march on Washington. How would you respond to these critics who say that you're spending more time worrying about the civil rights in El Salvador than worrying about those people who are being discriminated against here in America?

The President. I'm glad you asked that question. I hope sometime, at some press conferences, it will be asked more often. There is a perception that I have to tell you, on my own behalf, is totally false about our approach to anything of that kind.

I can call to your attention that the idea of forced busing, now, is one that the polls show that both minority and the majority in America—parents—disapprove of. They don't believe—that while it started with the most worthwhile of ideas, that it has not achieved the purpose that it should, and that we could find better ways to bring about what we want. I am wholeheartedly in favor of integration—and was, long before there was a term called "civil rights," back at a time when—well, some of the things that went on, it's hard to believe now—but back when I was your age, that we lived in a time in which there was such injustice, such discrimination.

But I, fortunately, was raised by a mother and father who believed that the—well, the only intolerance they had was they were intolerant of intolerance. And I was raised to believe something else. And when I was a sports announcer in Iowa, not too far from Centerville, announcing major league baseball—how many of you remember that, within that span of time, major league baseball—no blacks were allowed to play? It was in the Spaulding Guide. It said, "Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen." And there were some of us at that time that began campaigning that this was wrong, and this was immoral, and it should be changed. And I am proud to say I was one of those.

Now, I think you mentioned our appointment to the Civil Rights Commission. Well, one of them, a Dr. Abram, was the lawyer who defended Martin Luther King when he was arrested for the sit-in in a lunch counter in Atlanta, Georgia. And Bunzel, who was the head of San Jose State University for 8 years, has been involved in civil rights activities for 35 years and was honored by the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco for his work in civil rights in 1974. The other member that I have nominated has an equally solid record in that. And the young Hispanic woman that I have named as Director of the Board, the Executive Director, she is not only of a minority community herself, but she was the assistant to Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers union and also participated in civil rights in education.

I think there's been some misinformation about what we're trying to do and what we've done. As a matter of fact, our Justice Department right now is engaged in more investigations of suspected discrimination in school districts than, I believe, any of the past several / Administrations have been.

And I can only tell you this: My own feeling and belief is that wherever in this country any individual is being denied his or her constitutional rights, it is the responsibility of the Federal Government, with all the power it possesses, to go to the aid of that single individual.

American Heroes

Q. Mr. President, my name is Christine Thompson, and I'm from New Baltimore, Michigan. You are in a room with 1,400 student leaders. As students, we hear from many of your contemporaries that America does not have as many heroes and leaders as it once did. What is your opinion as to why this has occurred? Who are your heroes, and why?

The President. Heroes. You know, we seem to be in a kind of a cult. And the entertainment world is partly guilty of this, as well as other things. We seem to be obsessed with wanting to tear down our heroes. But you know something? We're a country of heroes. And the greatest unsung heroes in the world go unnoticed. No, they're not out there manning the parapets or riding to the rescue. They're getting up every morning. They're sending you, their sons and daughters, to school. They're going to work. They're contributing to their church and their charities. They're making this society run.

We have started a thing called the private sector initiative since we've been there. This is to turn and find out, how many things can the private sector do that government has increasingly insisted that only it could do? I just left Kentucky. And there, in Louisville, Kentucky, I was meeting with a group as big or bigger than you, who are the leaders and the students of vocational education. And they're there for the Vocational Skills Olympics that will take place tomorrow, in which they will compete with each other in their knowledge and what they can do with high technology, with constructive things, with engineering, and so forth.

But speaking of heroes, there was a group of very top chief executives of major corporations in this country. They have volunteered and are helping and are furnishing the equipment and the training. And they've put up $7 million to finance these Olympics. And all over the country this is going on. Yes, we have heroes. I think the hundred kids in our Marine Corps, stationed in Italy, that sent me a letter the other day and said, if by them doing without a cost-of-living pay raise it would help our country in this time of deficits, count on them, they'll do without the pay raise. I think that's kind of heroic.

Moderator. We'll have time for one more question.

The President. Oh, dear, one more question. All right.

Historical Analogy to Nuclear Arms Race

Q. Mr. President, hi, my name's Shelley Little, and I'm from Spokane, Washington. And my question is: Has there been an historical chain of events commensurate to the nuclear arms race of today?

The President. Historically, has there been a chain of events that is commensurate to this? Yes, probably not in the scale of how quickly potential devastation could occur as it can with nuclear weapons, but I remember back when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President. 1938. Hitler had begun his rise to power in Germany. Hitler, at a time when—still in that aftermath of World War I, which is still called "the Great War"—other nations had disarmed to a great extent, and suddenly, here was one of the great military machines of all time being built in Germany, the country that had just lost that World War. And Roosevelt asked at the time, he said, "Why don't we quarantine the borders of Germany? Why don't we stop all trade, all communication across those borders until he joins the rest of the free world in eliminating those weapons and in searching for peace?"

Well, he was almost hooted out of public office for having made such a statement, because there was too much communication and trade going back and forth at the time. You ask yourself, had he succeeded, had anyone listened to him, would there have been World War II? And we know the answer to that.

Now, today, we have another power in the world that has built the greatest war machine the world has ever seen—far outnumbers anything that we have. And it can't be described as just purely for defense, because the Soviet Union's military structure is built for offense. We, in turn, have—we've managed to keep the peace for almost 40 years now since World War II, the longest period, virtually, in European history and certainly in this century. And we've kept it by a deterrent. We're not up to them in strength yet, but we maintain a deterrent that says to them, "If you try it-if you try to do this world conquering thing that other dictators have tried in the past, the punishment to you will be unacceptable." And this is the only purpose of our arms.

We have a team in Vienna that is negotiating and has been for some time on conventional weapons. We have two teams in Geneva, one negotiating, hopefully and prayerfully, for a reduction in the strategic nuclear weapons—the long-range, the missiles, that if they push the button would be here in 20 to 30 minutes, exploding all over our land. The other one is in intermediate-range weapons. The Soviet Union has about 1,300 warheads in intermediate-range weapons posted near the NATO front, and which in 5 minutes those could be destroying all the targets and the cities of Europe. We have nothing of the kind on our side. And our NATO allies have asked us to provide a deterrent force there, and we agreed. And before the end of this year, the deployment will start of this deterrent.

The Soviet Union is very upset about this, but they came to the negotiating table and they are there. Now, we have offered that why don't we negotiate a total elimination of those intermediate-range weapons?they do away with theirs, and we won't send any of ours, and there won't be any nuclear weapons in Europe. They've said, "No." So we want an agreement, so we've said, "All right. We'll negotiate with you on a reduced level, then, as far down as you will reduce it."

But I would like to call to your attention also, on behalf of our country, because a lot of times it doesn't seem as if the reports about our country or what we're doing are what we actually, as a nation, deserve. In 1946, we were the only ones with the weapon, the nuclear weapon. We could have dominated the world. But in 1946, we called a meeting of all the world leaders and said, "Let us create an international commission to supervise the use of peaceful nuclear power and to totally eliminate all nuclear weapons." And think of it, we had the monopoly then. The Soviet Union was the only country that refused to go along.

And so today, we have this arms race, which we're trying to stop now. They say in their military manuals—and I have read this phrase—that a nuclear war is winnable. And they've said that it is all right if it furthers the progressive kinds of government and changes that they think should be made. Well, we say that a nuclear war is not winnable. It must never be fought. It can do nothing but destroy people on both sides. And we're going to keep trying— [applause] .

Thank you very much. I've got to get out of here. I've stayed here too long for all of you. But let me just say one thing that I like to say to young people like yourselves: No generation in history has ever been treated to as many words as you are. You have our communications, our media now. You can hear them, you can hear and see them, you can read them. 'And they, people like me stand up here and talk to you on them. Let me just say one thing: I've answered a few questions here with some things that I said were facts and figures. Don't let me get away with it. Check me out. And do that with everyone who tries to bring a message to you. Don't become a sucker generation. It isn't insulting or anything, just make sure always that you're being told the truth.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:41 p.m. in the gymnasium at the Shawnee Mission Northwest High School following remarks and an introduction by Robert Goodling, student chairperson of the National Association of Student Councils. Mr. Goodling presented the President with a souvenir pencil, engraved with the theme of the conference: Student Leaders Building America's Future.

As printed above, the spelling of the participants names follows the text of the White House press release.

Following his remarks, the President met at the high school with the leadership of the association and the National Association of Student Activity Advisers. He then left Kansas and traveled to California.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, the President went to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where he remained overnight.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Participants in the National Conference of the National Association of Student Councils in Shawnee Mission, Kansas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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