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Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Students at Suitland High School in Suitland, Maryland

January 20, 1988

I think I'm the reason why the program was delayed a little this morning. I was late, and the principal has told me I've got to stay after school. [Laughter] But it's an honor to be here with you to celebrate all that you've done to make this school so outstanding.

It so happens that visiting a school reminds me of something I heard just the other day. It seems that a certain little boy had age, and his mother worked very hard to make him enthusiastic about the idea—bought him new clothes, told him about the other children he would meet, got him so excited about the project that he eagerly went off on the first day, came home with excellent reports of what school was like. Well, the next morning, his mother went into the bedroom and said he had to get up, and he said, "What for?" She said, "You've got to go to school." He said, "What, again?" [Laughter]

Well, it is a pleasure to be at this wonderful school, this school that makes people want to come back. It wasn't so long ago, of course, that Suitland High School had its problems—bad problems: low academic performance, vandalism, poor attendance by both students and teachers alike. Yet today you've turned Suitland around to make it a school noted for its strong sense of purpose and pride, harmony and, yes, academic achievement. I wonder: Would you take a moment to join me in applauding your own remarkable accomplishment? [Applause]

Well, now we've heard Principal Hairston and others tell us how this transformation has taken place. And before taking your questions, I'd like to discuss with you how we might work this same transformation in schools all across America. The first point to make is that money alone isn't the answer. From 1963 to 1980, for example, the amount our nation spent on education in real terms more than doubled. Yet during precisely that same period, college board scores fell by almost 90 points. Consider, too, the State of New Hampshire. New Hampshire spends less on education per student than almost every State in the Union. Yet for a number of years now, New Hampshire students have had the Nation's highest SAT scores.

Now, please don't misunderstand me, funding is important, very important. In fact, the amount our country will devote to education this year at all levels of government-local, State, and Federal—will total over $300 billion. But money is only money. Unless it represents genuine commitment-a willingness to work hard at improving American education, to become involved-then money by itself is all but meaningless. You know, I've thought more than once that—back when we were throwing money at education—well, we were sort of like the parent who will buy his child expensive toys and clothes, who will give his child just about anything, except his own time and commitment.

But perhaps the greatest difficulty facing our educators today is this: In too many school systems, if you're a teacher, principal, or superintendent and you do something very good for your students, nothing good happens to you. In a word: There are too few rewards. We need to change that. We need to reward excellence in education as we reward excellence in other fields. We need, in other words, to introduce education to some free-market principles, things like incentives and accountability. An example of incentives is programs now' under consideration in some areas, programs that reward teachers and administrations for improved student performance. As for an example of accountability, well, you needn't look any further than Superintendent Murphy's "Applied Anxiety Room." Posted in his office are the test scores showing the performance of all the schools in Prince George's County. And John Murphy holds principals accountable for results. This is the kind of tough, sound management we need in our schools.

Educational excellence also means getting parents involved. It means taking innovative steps to attract and reward good teachers based on their performance. And it means alternate certification: opening up the teaching profession to allow more qualified men and women to enter the field. Excellence means community involvement, and your Advisory Council for Business and Industry, as we've heard, is a fine example of this.

And of course, educational excellence depends on choice. I've long argued that parents should have more choice in determining the schools that their children will attend. I've long argued that more choice would lead to better education. And so, I've advocated tuition tax credits and education vouchers. One form of choice, magnet schools, is one of the things Prince George's County is most noted for and is one of the great success stories of the education reform movement. The success of Suitland's own magnet programs—the Visual and Performing Arts Center and University High School—is a testament to their worth.

In helping to foster magnet schools, we help foster improved education. In 1987 a $4 million Department of Education grant was made to Prince George's County for magnet school programs, such as the kind that you have here at Suitland High School. It's been a good investment. Come to think of it, I wish all Federal dollars got that kind of return. And since I'd like to see magnet schools programs expanded, I'm going to ask the Congress to increase the size of the current program next year by over 50 percent, from $72 million to $115 million. With these additional funds, we can help more schools do what you've done so well in Prince George's County.

Now, I've talked for a while about how we can make our schools better, but I haven't yet told you why I believe this is so important. What it comes down to is this: It is here, in Suitland High and schools like it around the country, that our future is being shaped. Recently the headlines have been full of a term called "superconductivity," as papers struggle to keep up with the seemingly daily breakthroughs in the lab. Only a year ago superconductivity was considered a scientific backwater, a phenomenon with little practical purpose. Now scientists are saying it may change our lives. "It shows all the dreams we have had can come true. The sky is the limit," said one theorist. We're moving from an age of things to an age of thoughts, of mind over matter. It is the mind of man—free to invent, free to experiment, free to dream—that will shape the economy and the world of the future.

Permit me to offer in closing one final message, and it's a message from my heart. If you heard my radio talk last Saturday, then you'll know about a new report on drug use by America's students, including high school students like you. We've had so much bad news about drugs lately, but if you want some good news, just listen. According to the report released by our Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dr. Otis Bowen, last year, for the first time since these surveys began, a substantially smaller number of high school students-one third smaller—acknowledged current use of cocaine than acknowledged it the year before. And cocaine is no longer fashionable-far from it. Ninety-seven percent of the students surveyed disapproved of regular cocaine use, while 87 percent disapproved of even trying it. The use of marijuana and amphetamines is also down.

What it all means is this: America's young people are getting the message. Drugs are ugly. Drugs are nothing to brag about. Drugs kill. And this is so important as you look to the future. You see, in the 21st century, staying employed will mean more than just knowing something. It will mean being able to keep on learning. It will mean having character and discipline and being proud of yourselves. There won't be opportunities in years to come for those who handicap themselves with drug use now.

My young friends, you've done so much already, turning this school around, learning to learn, and learning to look to the future with confidence. I can't tell you how proud I am of you. Keep it up. Keep on saying yes to life. And when it comes to drugs, take a tip from a friend of mine who just happens to be named Nancy Reagan: Just say no. Thank you. God bless you all.

Mr. Hairston. Mr. President, I understand you have a few minutes remaining. We have some students out in the audience that would like to ask you a few questions.

The President. Alright.

Career Planning

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Felicia Funderburk. I'm the president of Suitland's Student Government Association. One of the most important questions facing high school seniors today is what college they plan to attend and what career goals they plan to pursue. When you were a high school senior, what career goals did you want to pursue? And how did you plan for it'? And what advice can you give young people today as they embark on their careers?

The President. You've asked a question, and I know you're expecting an answer saying something about having decided to do something or other. No; I'm delighted to answer this and encourage you—don't be concerned because you haven't made up your mind. I graduated from college with a degree in economics and sociology and still had not been able to pin down exactly what I wanted to do. Now, at that time, I must say, the demand was just maybe to get a job of any kind, because I graduated at the very depth of the Great Depression—1932. And so, you thought anything might be—but it wasn't until I went back to my summer job to get a little money to go job hunting after I graduated.

My summer job was lifeguarding at a river beach in my hometown. And there were people who came out from the city and corporate heads and so forth with their families every summer. And I taught their children to swim and so forth. And there weren't as many by 1932 with the result of what had happened in the Crash. But one was there, and he told me that if I could tell him what I wanted to do he had contacts with a number of businesses and areas. He would do what he could to get me a job. But he said, "You've got to come back and tell me." And I went home, and I thought, and I finally realized that in spite of my degree in economics and sociology I wanted the theatrical world.

Now, there in the middle of Illinois, I didn't have the nerve to say I wanted to be an actor. [Laughter] But radio was pretty new, and I said I wanted to be a sports announcer in radio. Well, he told me then, he said, "Well, I don't have any contacts. There's nothing I can do to help you there." But he said, "Maybe that's better. Let me give you some advice." He gave me the best advice I've ever had. He said, "Now that you've determined that, what you want to do," he said, "you start out knocking on doors, telling people at those doors what you want to do—businesses. And someplace along the line, even in this Depression, you'll find someone in a radio station who knows that his business is going to depend on bringing younger people into the business to carry on. And then you'll get a job." And he says, "Don't get discouraged if you knock on a lot of doors. Remember a salesman sometimes has to make 250 calls before he makes a sale."

It turned out to he the greatest advice I was ever given. And sure enough, one day in a station in Davenport, Iowa, turned down because they had just hired an announcer the day before—and where was I? Why didn't I know they were looking for one? On the way out, after a number of turndowns, I said to myself aloud, "How do you get to be a radio announcer if you can't even get a job in the station?" Well, I've left out one thing. He had told me, "Don't ask to be a sports announcer." He said, "Just ask for anything, because you believe in the future of radio—anything inside the station—and then take your chances on there from getting to what you want."

Well, I got to the elevator, and fortunately, the program director that I'd been interviewed by was arthritic, because I heard the thump of his canes coming down the floor before the elevator arrived. And he was yelling to me to stop and wait. And I did, and he asked me, "What was that you said about sports?" And I told him that that's what my ambition was. And he said, "What do you know about football?" I said, "I played it 8 years." And he said, "Could you tell me about a game and make me see it?" I said, "I think so."

He stood me in front of a microphone in a studio. He said, "When the red light goes on, you start broadcasting an imaginary football game." He said, "I'll be in another room listening." And I remembered a game we played the year before, my senior year. We won in the last 20 seconds of the game with a long touchdown run and so forth. And I could remember enough of the names so that I wouldn't have to fish for names in broadcasting it. So, I started us out in the fourth quarter, with the long, blue shadow settling over the field, and back in our own 35 yard line. Here's the play—has the ball going wide out to the right, cuts back in over—so forth and so on. [Laughter] He walked back into the studio, and he said, "Be here Saturday. You're broadcasting the Iowa-Minnesota football game." And that's how I started my career as a sports announcer.

I know I've taken a long time here, but I know that this is a problem at your age-that you're thinking so hard, so many of you, what do I want to do? And don't let it bother you that you haven't made that decision yet. You'll change your mind many times before it comes—the right moment. But then when it comes, just knock on the door, whatever you've chosen to do, and ask until you find somebody that will let you in.

Q. Thank you very much.

The President. I didn't mean to make a second speech, but you touched a nerve. [Laughter]

Political Participation

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Victoria Bell, and I'm a member of the graduating class of 1988. Those of us who are of age have registered to vote. Could you please give us some advice on what a young person's role should be in politics today?

The President. Your role should be in-what is it? I didn't—

Q. On what a young person's role should be in politics today.

The President. In politics? Well, it was the last thing I thought I would ever end up in. [Laughter] I had completely different thoughts for most of my life. But I think what you should recognize is this—there is a little figure that says something. The 18-to 24-year-old group of young people happens to be the lowest bracket with regard to voting, the smallest percentage of that bracket votes. We have a society that is unique in the world. It is based on the fact that "we the people" are the Government. Our Constitution differs from all but one other constitution in the world. Our Constitution isn't the Government telling the people what their privileges are: Our Constitution is we the people telling the Government what it can do.

Now, government of that kind can only work if people participate. So, whether you're interested in ever becoming involved in politics yourself, participate by that most fundamental thing of voting. But also when you make up your mind, the thing that you believe in, and whether it's party or what philosophy, then participate. Volunteer in campaigns to be of help, to really participate in what the Government-or who is going to be in the Government. And then, if from that experience you find that you want to actually engage in the issues of the day and having a say about them, then you look around and pick where is the nearest and most available way or level of government and office that you can begin by seeking public office.

And then, when you get that public office, make up your mind—I have told a Cabinet as a Governor of California and a Cabinet as the President of the United States, in discussing all the issues and what we're going to do about something, don't anyone tell me what the best political way is. I don't want to hear what is right or wrong politically. I want to hear what is right or wrong morally about the issue and what we should do, and make that your goal as a participant in government.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

Federal Role in Education

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Larry Bradford. I'm a student with the visual and performing arts program. My question to you today is: Based on what you learned of our school today, what educational programs and policies will your administration be advocating?

The President. What educational programs?

Q. What educational programs and policies will your administration be advocating?

The President. Well, I probably should turn that question over to the Secretary of Education, who is experienced in it, but I would just take a chance myself—if he wants to add anything to this. I think that the first thing we at the Federal level must recognize is that our great system of education is managed by and run by the people at the local and State level. And the Federal Government should be of help where it can, but it should not involve itself in trying to dictate to the schools of America. Do you want to add to that, Bill?

Secretary Bennett. Couldn't say it better myself. That's for sure. [Laughter]

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

Secretary Bennett. Maybe I would just underline what you said in your remarks, Mr. President. I think you will see emphasis from us on the point that we heard from this table: accountability, choice, high expectations to help the kind of local effort we see here be duplicated all around the country.

The President. We have a great diversity in our education across this great land—in more than education, in the land itself—and that is valuable to us.

Arms Control

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Audrell Cabiness, and I'm an eleventh-grader here at Suitland. What could future leaders do to ensure the prevention of nuclear war?

The President. Well, wait a minute. I have a little trouble with—

Q. What could future leaders do to ensure the prevention of nuclear war?

The President. What can we all do with regard to preventing a war? Is that what you're talking about?

Q. Yes.

The President. Well, having seen four of them in my lifetime, I'm hoping and praying that we can avoid one. But I do know this: We have to be practical. We have to be realistic. We have to be totally in favor of peace ourselves and doing all that we can to maintain peace.

My first words in my meeting with Gorbachev in Geneva, Switzerland—when he and I met in a room, just the two of us and—well, with interpreters—I said to him that we were in a unique situation, the two of us from these two great powers, that we could perhaps bring on a war or we could bring on peace for the world. And I said I think what we have to recognize is we mistrust each other, and we are both heavily armed. And I said we don't mistrust each other because we're armed. We're armed because we mistrust each other. And so, our goal—even though we're going to talk about trying to reduce weapons and lower the military threat—that our main goal must be to eliminate the mistrust that has caused us to build those armaments. And I think that this country—we have an order now to maintain peace.

The Great Seal of the United States, with the eagle and its head turned—in one claw has arrows and in the other claw has the olive branch, designating peace. The older seal, the one on my desk in the Oval Office—because it's an old, old desk—the eagle is looking at the claw with the arrows. On the ceiling—because the building is newer—on that seal, the eagle is looking at the claw with the olive branch.

Harry Truman, after World War II, decided that our seal should be changed and that our eagle, our bird, should be looking at peace, not war. But at the same time, right now I'm trying to convince the Congress-we have made great strides in this first treaty that has ever been signed of the actual elimination of arms—has come about because we revealed to the world that we were going to deal from strength, that they could have their choice: engage in an arms race with us or join us in eliminating the causes of armament. And so, we're pursuing that. And it's been successful so far, because after several years of turndown, we have signed the first treaty that ever eliminated a total system of nuclear weapons. And that's—

Q. Thank you.

U.S. Trade Deficit

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Keith Emory, and I'm a senior in the comprehensive school program. My question for you deals with a major issue in the United States: the issue of the balance of trading. What steps do you think the U.S. Government can take to correct the many trade imbalances that we have with foreign countries?

The President. We're taking those steps as much as we can. But let me point something out. I happen to be one who believes that the imbalance in trade is not the terrible thing that it has been portrayed. Granted that we would like to export more, but for 100 years—while this country of ours was becoming the great economic power that it is—for all those 100 years, we had an imbalance of trade, as we have now. We're the greatest exporter in the world. Now, I could caution you, too. Sometimes our statisticians don't use all the figures they should. For example, by the number of dollars of exports that we have does not include services, just things that are made to sell. I think there might be a little difference if we realized how much money comes in from abroad to insurance companies that sell insurance abroad, the services of that kind. And it would balance up a little better.

But if we're going to be the greatest exporter, we must recognize the right of other countries to export, too, and therefore we're an importer. And I've always—this comes, I guess, from that degree in economics I got—I've always believed that people in America who feel free to buy foreign products, import foreign goods of some kind or another—that's their right to do that. And those people, at the same time that they're sending money abroad, they're replacing that money with a product that has an actual money worth. And it's not that the Government is involved in that. Where the Government is involved is—we have people in our Congress today who want protectionism, high tariffs that will keep people from being able to sell goods in our country without realizing that they can retaliate and then have high tariffs against us selling abroad.

Back in that Great Depression that I mentioned earlier, in 1932, two great mistakes were made in this country and by this country. One, we introduced a thing called the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which made it virtually impossible for anyone to sell anything in America, and that simply spread the Great Depression around the world. And the only thing that ended the Great Depression was World War II. And that was one lesson. The second lesson was the Congress of the United States also then increased the income taxes tremendously from one bracket of 1½ percent to 9 percent, from something like around 20 percent to 63 percent. And immediately, the total amount of revenue that the Government was getting was reduced, even though the rates were higher.

And so, what we're fighting for is free and fair trade around the world, and we've made great progress with some of our trading partners who did have restraints and restrictions. But that open, free trade and, as I continue to insist, low tax rates here on ourselves in our own country, to increase the incentive of people to earn more—we have reduced the taxes in our administration, and the total amount of revenue the Government is getting from that tax has increased mightily. About 1,000 years ago, a man named Ibn-Khaldun said in the beginning of the empire, the rates were low and the revenue was high. At the end of the empire, the rates were high and the revenue was low. So, we're going to stick with what we're trying to do, and we can use all the help that you'll give us.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. Administration Accomplishments

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. I am Len Walder, a freshman in the University High School. My question to you is this: What do you feel was your major accomplishment as President, and what would you most like to be remembered for as President of the United States?

The President. Well, I'd just like to be remembered. [Laughter] But, well, I'd be satisfied if they just would say I did my best. But now, wait a minute here. You got me so off base here on the first part of that question—what—oh, what accomplishment? It's rather difficult to pick things out of all the things that we tried to turn around and change. The economy was in a shambles when we came here. We were in a great recession. Interest rates were sky high, and inflation was in double digits. We turned all that around. And for 61 months we have had an economic expansion which is the longest period in the history of our nation for an economic expansion. But with all of that, I think I'd rather be remembered for the fact that not too many years ago there was a great pessimism in our country, and people were very critical, and people didn't seem to be very proud of the flag anymore. And today what I get in the mail and what I hear from people when I get out of Washington is that once again they're proud to be Americans. And if I had anything to do with that, that's what I would be most proud of, that once again—

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Well, just one line to finish now, and I appreciate very much and apologize for the length of my answers. But this thing about America—I got a letter from a man the other day, and I'll share it with you. This man said you can go to live in Turkey, but you can't become a Turk. You can go to live in Japan, but you cannot become Japanese—or Germany or France-and named all the others. But he said anyone from any corner of the world can come to America and become an American.

Note: The President spoke at 11:50 a.m. in the school auditorium. In his remarks, he referred to Joseph Hairston, principal of the school.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Students at Suitland High School in Suitland, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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