Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to Members of the National Governors' Association

February 22, 1988

Thank you all very much, and welcome to the White House again. It was wonderful to see you all at our dinner here last night. As you know, I recently visited Mexico to meet with President De la Madrid. And I was reminded in that visit of when I was Governor of California and had been asked by the then-President to go down and represent him there. And like many of you, I've traveled to other countries, also, than the United States. But on this first visit to Mexico, I gave a speech to a rather large audience and then sat down to rather unenthusiastic and scattered applause. And I was embarrassed and tried to cover all of that, because what made it worse was that the next speaker up was speaking in Spanish, which I didn't understand, but he was getting interrupted virtually every line with most enthusiastic applause. So, I started clapping before anyone else and longer than anyone else until our Ambassador leaned over and said to me, "I wouldn't do that if I were you. He's interpreting your speech." [Laughter] Well, as I said last night, it's nice to be talking to not one but almost half a hundred heads of state, and with no interpretation required—at least not usually.

I'd like to pick up today on a subject from last night: giving government back to the people, giving many of the responsibilities not specifically stated in the Constitution as Federal functions back to the States and localities where they belong. I remember when we first came to this town over 7 years ago. When you started to talk about federalism, you sometimes felt like a lone voice crying in the wilderness.

It's like the time Abraham Lincoln found his entire Cabinet, with the exception of one member, ranged against him on an issue. Lincoln had a way at times like that of stopping action for the moment and telling a story—I think that habit sort of goes with this job. So, Lincoln told the story of a man at an Illinois revival meeting who fell asleep halfway through the preacher's sermon. And the preacher was getting really inspired, and he challenged the congregation, "All of you who are on the Lord's side, stand up." And of course, everyone stood up, except for one man who was still sound asleep. And then the preacher in a bellowing voice called out, "And all of you who are on the side of the devil, stand up." At that point, the man woke up, arose, and was standing there all alone. And he said, "I didn't exactly understand the question, but I'll stand by you, parson, till the last," he said. "But it seems to me we're in a hopeless minority." [Laughter]

Well, we're no longer a hopeless minority. Together, you and I, over the past 7 years, have begun to return balance to the relationship between the Federal Government and the States. This past October, I signed an Executive order that restricts the Federal Government from preempting State laws and requires that all proposed policies and legislation comply with the principles of federalism. And I commend Governor Sununu and the National Governors' Association in your efforts to examine ways—including constitutional amendments-to restore the balance of power between the National Government and the States. Federalism, as arcane and maybe even antiquated as it may sound to some, is gaining momentum, with success following success. As States and localities take on more of their rightful responsibilities, they're showing that they can teach the all wise Federal Government a thing or two.

Not one of our efforts of the past will be more crucial than working to ensure the protection of our children, families, and neighborhoods. As I said in the State of the Union, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide the very best opportunities for the generation that will follow us. Isn't that the dream of every parent, that their children's future will be even better than theirs? Our job is to make sure that government policies are geared to protecting and nurturing our most precious natural resource: our children.

Education, of course, is an essential element. One can't read the writings of our Founding Fathers today without being impressed by the faith that they put in education-the faith they had that an educated populace would guarantee the success of this great experiment in democracy that they were undertaking. Such a strong faith in education must have been based not just on wishful thinking but on sound observation, observation that the American style of education—not just for the few, not just for the elite, but for all—was working. And so, one can't help but believe they knew what they were doing when they quite consciously left the responsibility to educate the American people up to the States.

I suppose it's the destiny of every second generation or so to think for awhile that maybe they're wiser than our Founding Fathers. And it's the destiny of the generation that follows to realize that this almost certainly is not true and to try to bring the Nation back to its first principles. The mystique of Washington, of big government, held sway for 40 years; and even as the dollars spent on education increased by over 3,000 percent, the quality of education in this country precipitously declined. It seems odd to us now that people would actually believe that a collection of bureaucrats sitting in a building in Washington, DC, could actually do a better job designing and running our children's education than the thousands of communities and millions of parents who know intimately their children's needs.

In the last few years, we've arrested the decline in American education by returning to the fundamental common sense of our Founding Fathers and the fundamental common sense of parents across this nation. The States have begun to reassert their authority in education, and many of you Governors have been leading the charge. And with this new renaissance of federalism has come a wealth of new ideas, innovation, and experiment, but more needs to be done.

Secretary [of Education] Bennett makes, I think, an interesting analogy. He says that if you serve a child a rotten hamburger in America, Federal, State, and local agencies will investigate you, summon you, close you down, whatever. But if you provide a child with a rotten education, nothing happens, except that you're liable to be given more money to do it with. Well, we've discovered that money alone isn't the answer. I'd like to mention a few steps that could be taken now—in 1988—to drastically improve the education our children are getting. These are, of course, primarily matters for local and State authorities to resolve, but I'd like to use my bully pulpit to urge a few changes.

Now, nothing is more important to good education than good teachers, yet in most States unnecessary regulations and requirements block talented people from entering the field. Governor Kean of New Jersey recognized the problem and instituted a new alternative certification program that has been an unqualified success in opening up the teaching profession to all those who have something to offer, increasing the number of applicants to teaching jobs, and improving the quality of teachers. We also need more accountability in our educational system. That means merit pay at all levels of the system so that those who are doing a good job are encouraged and rewarded. It also means giving parents a greater choice of the school their child will attend. I've long supported various mechanisms to increase parental choice, including tuition tax credits, vouchers, and magnet schools. It's now clear from the experience of many cities and school districts that increased choice leads to increased competition and better schools—so, better teachers, more accountability, but also better content.

"A Nation at Risk" said our high school students should have 4 years of English and 3 years of math, science, and social studies. Many States have moved in the direction of these requirements, but only 3 States have adopted them. In any case, requiring that students take the key subjects is only the first step; we need to make sure that our students study the basics, but also raise the standards in those courses. Now, it's not for the Federal Government to specify content of curricula, but I urge educators and citizens to take a look at Bill Bennett's recent proposed model high school curriculum and to make sure that our schools are giving students as rich and challenging a curriculum as they deserve and as equality of opportunity demands.

Perhaps the greatest test of federalism is how we meet the urgent need for welfare reform—how successful we are in fashioning local and community solutions to problems that would destroy families, or worse, keep families from forming in the first place. With a variety of innovative programs, the States are moving forward to meet this challenge, and I think we have reason to be optimistic that in the diversity of these approaches we may find new answers. And that's why I strongly support the Brown-Michel bill on welfare reform. This cost-effective proposal allows for States to demonstrate their ideas for reform of a system that is just not working for poor people. And I know that many of you have already developed demonstration programs, and we hope that more of you will do so.

Another problem for which the States are looking for solutions is child care. Once again, the Brown-Michel bill will permit you to develop your own ideas on child care, ideas that will treat child care in the way that is best for you and the families in your communities, instead of having the Federal Government jump in.

And now, if I might, I'd just like to sound a note of caution. It's natural in politics-when there's a perceived need in the country, when people are calling out for solutions, they look to government first. Often government has a role, a crucial and a necessary one. Still, maybe it's my conservative bent, but I can't help but feel uneasy sometimes. Some describe a conservative as he who would rather sit and think, and others describe him as someone who would rather just sit.

A program on PBS some time ago described in devastating detail how our current welfare program, originally designed to raise people out of poverty, has become a crippling poverty trap, destroying families and condemning generations to a dependency. Economist Walter Williams, in "The State Against Blacks," details how many laws and regulations—also originally designed with a progressive social purpose-have just the opposite effect. They keep the poor poor. Now, much of the push for child care is designed to rectify the ills of earlier programs, and many of these efforts are timely and good. But in this area, more than any other, government should tread carefully, humbly, because we're dealing with the most fundamental element of human society: the family.

Of course, one of the best things we could do for families is obliterate drug use in America. Our society's come a long way in 8 years, from do your own thing to just say no. Again, States are taking the lead in helping to make our society intolerant to drug use with stiff penalties and sure and swift punishment for offenders.

And one final word if I may. Over the last year, many of you've been traveling abroad as sort of special trade emissaries, and you've done a tremendous job working to improve trade and open foreign markets to American goods. Well, at this moment, we have before us an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate to the world just what we mean by free and fair trade. I'm talking about the Canada free trade agreement-the first ever of its kind and scope.

At this moment in history, we have a choice. We can go the way that some are proposing—threats, tariffs and retaliation, and a shrinking world trade system, or openness, expansion, and freer and fairer trade, bringing an upward cycle of prosperity to all who participate. The first leads inevitably and inexorably to Smoot-Hawley. And the second—well, I mentioned our Founding Fathers earlier.

Their primary purpose in calling for a Constitutional Convention in 1787 was to solve the trade disputes between the States that were tearing our young nation apart. Fighting had actually broken out between some States. Blood had been shed. Perhaps as great as the political unity they achieved in Philadelphia in 1787 was the economic breakthrough—the principles that would enable America to become the world's largest free trade zone, a continental economy.

We now have the chance to expand that free trade zone to include our largest trading partner: Canada. And I hope I can count on your support for this historic agreement. As with our Founding Fathers, it will, in many cases, mean transcending the special interests of the moment—no matter how valid they may be in themselves—and looking to the broader interest not just of one State or not just of the United States, but of an entire world whose freedom and prosperity depend on an open and expanding cycle of free trade.

Well, I've gone on long enough. You know, there's a story about Henry Clay, the Senator from Kentucky known for his biting wit. One time in the Senate, one Senator in the middle of a seemingly interminable speech turned to Clay and said, "You, sir, speak for the present generation, but I speak for posterity." And Clay interrupted him and said, "Yes, and you seem resolved to speak until the arrival of your audience." [Laughter]

Well, I'll cut it shorter than that. Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:03 a.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. John H. Sununu of New Hampshire, chairman of the association.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Members of the National Governors' Association Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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