Bill Clinton photo

Remarks to the American Federation of Teachers

July 28, 1995

I must say I enjoyed the class being a little rowdy this afternoon. [Laughter] I thank you for your welcome. I thank you for your support. Most important of all, I thank you for the work you do every day. Thank you, Al Shanker, for the introduction and for being here and for being a consistent and clear voice for opportunity and excellence in education. Thank you, Ed McElroy; thank you, Sandy Feldman; thanks to all of my friends in the AFT. And thank you for bringing these children up on the stage today to remind us what this is all about.

You know, if you go in any classroom in America you see the infinite promise of our country in a beautiful essay or a difficult math problem solved or just an act of kindness from one child to another. And you come face to face with the terrible challenges confronting this country, in children who are old beyond their years because of what they've had to endure, too tired or hurt or closed off from each other and the world to learn.

You also know that what happens to your students in the classroom depends a lot on what happens to them before they get there and after they leave. And I must say in that connection, I've often thought it ironic that some of the people that bewail the loss of family values in our country are all too eager to criticize teachers for the problems in our schools, when the truth is that oftentimes the school is the only coherent, consistent direction, family-oriented, value time that a lot of our kids get.

It is true that this administration has worked hard to be a friend to education. Secretary Riley, Deputy Secretary Kunin, and all the fine people at the Department of Education I think have done an excellent job in working with you and in broadening their reach; working with Secretary Reich and the people in the Labor Department; working with the private sector all over the country, trying to build a grassroots consensus for what is best about education in our country, trying to build this country up instead of using education as yet one more issue to divide the American people and to distract us from our real problems.

Today I want to talk to you really seriously about what happens to the kids in this country, mostly before and after school in the context of this big family values debate we're having again this year. I don't regret the fact that we're having it, and I believe the debate has been too polarized between the opposite sides that I believe have a lot to say to each other. And if you want any evidence of that, read your own bill of rights and responsibilities. I just got a great copy of it. It's two sides of the debate raging today about family values.

There are those who see family problems and children's problems as primarily matters of personal and social morality. And they believe that all the Government has to do is to encourage good behavior like praying in school or sexual abstinence, or to punish bad behavior like criminal conduct or the unwillingness to move from welfare to work, even when a job's available.

Then there are others who see family problems primarily as a result of the unbelievable economic and social difficulties facing Americans today. And they believe the role of Government is to develop policies that help all of us make the most of our own abilities and to reward people who are working hard and playing by the rules.

But on a lot of issues, these two sides really aren't as far apart as they may seem. Again, I say, read your own bill of rights and responsibilities and you see both sides of that argument coming at you.

A moral problem can quickly become an economic problem. The epidemic rates of teen pregnancy in our country, for example, mean that an awful lot of kids who are born into poverty and never escape it, and an awful lot of parents who don't escape it because they don't have education and child care. On the other hand, an economic problem can rapidly become a moral problem.

Parents, on the whole, are working harder today than they were 25 years ago—literally, more hours at work for about the same or lower wages than they were making 15 years ago. That means you don't have much time for your kids, to teach them the things that they can only learn from their families. So economic problems can spill over into the family area as well and have a moral dimension. So I argue to you that what we really need is an American family values agenda, kind of like the bill of rights and responsibilities you've articulated for the schools, that basically takes the best of both of these approaches and, more importantly, lifts this debate up, gets it beyond partisan strategies to divide the American people for short-term gain, because too often these issues are raised in that way. If we really want family values, we've really got to value families.

Think about the bewildering array of problems faced by families today. Young couples, both of them working, they have a child, they desperately want one of the parents to stay home for a few weeks with the child—good solid family values. Will they lose one of the jobs if that happens?

You've got people who look out their windows at playgrounds and wonder if they can let their children play on them because they'll be violating family values if their kids aren't safe. You have fathers cooking dinners for children right before they go to work all night. And then they have to sleep all day while mother goes to work. So it never quite gets worked out that both the family parents get to work with the children the way they wish. This happens all the time.

I never will forget, I used to—every election in Arkansas when I was Governor, I used to make the earliest factory gate in my State—the Campbell's Soup plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. People started going to work at 4:30 in the morning. And I figured that I'd get some votes just for being fool enough for showing up at 4:30. [Laughter] And sure enough, I did. [Laughter] I never will forget, one day—and I'd go there, stay there from 4:30 to 5:30, and shake hands with everybody that showed up. I never will forget it—at a quarter to 5 one day, a pickup pulled up and the door opens, the light came on inside the pickup, and there was a fine-looking young man and his fine-looking young wife and three little babies sitting between them in the pickup. And she had to be at work, punched in, at 5 every morning. Then he had to be at work at 7. And they had to figure out somebody that had day care by a quarter to 7 in the morning so that he could drop those kids off and get there.

Now, we talk about family values—that is the typical experience—it's earlier in the morning, but most families in this country are working their fingers to the bone doing the best they can up against very difficult odds. And we need to talk about this in terms of the real experience of real people.

There are a whole lot of families that are spending their money trying to take care of their elderly parents and keep them out of nursing homes, and so they don't think they'll be able to send their kids to college. That also stretches family values.

There are a lot of children who are losing hope. And a recent study was published on rising rates of casual drug use among young people, pointing out that the ones who tend to get into drugs early are young people who have either no strong religious values or no real hope for their own personal future or no strong relationship with their own parents.

So there really are serious issues here, but we need to see it in the real world. How many teachers do we know who have students of exceptional promise that they're afraid will never live up to the promise because of the economic handicaps on the family of the student.

So I say this to make the following point: Families do not eat and breathe and sleep political slogans; they do not. Most families couldn't tell you for the life of them whether I'm up or down in the polls this week, and they couldn't care less. They just know whether they're up or down in their real life struggle this week. And that's what we ought to think about.

If you add all these family stories together, you see that America is kind of a good newsbad news story. This is remarkable—in the last 2 1/2 years—when I came here and I campaigned to you for President, I said, if you vote for me, I will do my best to revive the middle class in this country, to give poor people a chance to get into the middle class, and to pave the way for a brighter future for all of our people. I will emphasize creating more opportunity, I will insist on more responsibility to the American people, and I'll try to bring the people together without regard to race or region or religion or other things that divide us.

And in the last 2 1/2 years, we've put into effect an aggressive economic program, an aggressive education program, an aggressive trade program, an aggressive anticrime program. We have today 7 million more jobs, a lower unemployment rate, a lower inflation rate. The crime rate is down in virtually every major urban area of the country. We are moving on our problems. But with a record business profits, a record stock market, a record number of new businesses, a record number of new millionaires, most Americans are working harder for the same amount of money they were making 2 1/2 years ago, feeling somewhat more insecure on the job, a little bit uncertain about their retirement and their family's health care, and worried sick they won't be able to educate their kids.

How did this happen? We're moving into a global economy, an information society. A smaller percentage of the work force are protected by organizations like yours. And there is more uncertainty out there. So I believe we do need to ask ourselves, if we believe that the stability of our society and the strength of our country and the future of our children depend upon our families, then what are our family values? And how are we going to reward good family conduct? How are we going to stabilize life for families who are willing to do the right thing? How are we going to attack the real problems? How are we going to avoid this kind of phony debate?

And I'll just give you a short agenda here. I'm going to give a test on this at the end of this. [Laughter] Here are 14 things we could do to help families. Brief.

One, help people care for their elderly parents and, for sure, don't make it harder. Two, reform the health insurance system so that at least people don't lost their health insurance if they change jobs or if somebody's sick in their family. Three, keep the family and medical leave law and make sure everybody in America knows what it is and knows how to take advantage of it.

Four, have tougher national standards for child support enforcement. Five, figure out who's been successful in preventing teen pregnancy and organize a national campaign to do the same thing in every community in the country. Six, build on what works to prevent drug abuse and drug use, and do it. Don't just talk about—invest money, time, and effort in consistent commitment to drug abuse prevention.

Seven, if you want to cut health care costs and increase life expectancy, do something to stop all these kids who are beginning to smoke at early ages. It's killing them. Eight, expose our children to less violence by enforcing the Brady law and keeping the ban on assault weapons and passing the ban on cop-killer bullets.

Nine, if you're concerned about violence and children and the role the media is contributing to it, instead of giving a speech about it, do something about it. When Congress passes a telecommunications law that's going to make a bunch of money for a bunch of people, and it will be all right if it creates a lot of jobs and helps us get more information, tell them to put in the law the simple provision to give everybody that's got a cable hookup a V-chip so that the parents can decide what comes across to the television to the kids. And by the way, don't get rid of public broadcasting. At least parents have an alternative.

Ten, do something about family incomes for people who are doing the right thing. Raise the minimum wage to $5.00 an hour. Eleven, if you want to give a tax cut, give a family-oriented tax cut to help people raise their children and educate their children. That's the kind of tax cut we ought to have in this country.

Twelve, remember that adults need education, too. And take all these Government programs that were enacted with the best of intentions over a long period of time and consolidate them, and instead, when somebody loses their job or they're working for a minimum wage and they want to get a new training program, send them a check to take to the local community college so they can get a decent education that will lead them to a job.

Thirteen—don't get nervous, I'm saving you for last. [Laughter] Thirteen, every list of civic values ever given to kids in school that I have ever seen says, teach young people respect for themselves, respect for other people, respect for our country, and respect for our natural environment. Thirteen, do no harm—stop this crazy effort to dismantle all the environmental and public health protection in the United States Congress today.

Fourteen, education: Don't cut it. Don't cut Head Start. Don't take a million kids out of Chapter 1. Don't get rid of Goals 2000, which gives teachers the chance to really do something significant. Do not increase the cost of a college loan; that is the dumbest thing I ever heard of in my life. It is not necessary to cut education to balance the budget. It is only necessary to cut education to balance the budget if you're determined to do it in 7 years instead of 10, with a tax cut nobody can justify with a deficit this high and an education deficit at the same time. Put the money into education and into our future. The wealthiest Americans support this approach; they know it's the right thing to do.

So I want to amplify on a couple of these, not all 14, but I want to say them again. Help people care for their elderly parents. Reform the health insurance system so fathers and mothers don't lose the health insurance for themselves and their kids if somebody in the family has been sick or they change jobs. Keep the enforcement of the family and medical leave law; don't support the Congress taking out all the funds for enforcement. More people need to know about it, not fewer. Not a single business has gone broke since we protected family and medical leave in 1993.

Tougher child support enforcement; prevent teen pregnancy; reduce drug abuse among young people; prevent teens from starting smoking; handgun and assault weapons, keep those bills in there on the Brady bill and the assault weapons bill, and pass the cop-killer bullet ban; raise the minimum wage; have a reform of the family tax system so we give the tax breaks to people raising their kids and educating them; put the V-chip in the cable TV if you want to do something about culture and violence; pass the "GI bill" for America's workers, give people who are unemployed a check, not a list of 70 programs they'll find at the local community college; protect the environment; and do not cut education. Now, that is an agenda that we can live with—I think I left out the minimum wage, but I won't forget it when we get to the budget.

Now, let me tell you, Sunday—Saturday or Sunday, sometime over the weekend, will be the exact day of the 30th anniversary of Medicare. We need to reform Medicare. We can't have medical costs going up at 2 and 3 and 4 times the rate of inflation. But let's not forget, before Medicare, fewer than half the elderly people in this country had any health insurance, and 97 percent of them do.

And if any of you have been through what I have—and I imagine most of your have been. If you had, as I had, your mother and your father-in-law desperately ill for long periods of time, you think, my goodness, what would we do without Medicare? And I realize how much better off I am than most Americans, and it would have bankrupted me. What would most Americans do? What would the elderly do?

So can we slow the rate of increase? Sure we can. But to pick an arbitrary number just because we've got to balance the budget in 7 years instead of 10 and have this huge tax cut that, by the way, is about the amount of money we're going to save out of Medicare. That's wrong.

Instead, we ought to reform the system. And we could save money over the long run by taking a little of that money and helping States to set up opportunities for people like you to help your parents stay out of nursing homes as well as to pay for them when they go in. That is the better way to approach that problem. And I'd like to see us do it.

I mentioned family and medical leave. I couldn't believe it when I saw there were people in the Congress who wanted to strip the Government of the ability to enforce the law. Nobody has gone broke doing this. Nobody has. I want to tell you, the most moving personal encounters I think I've had, except with children, since I've been President, have come from adults who have taken advantage of the family and medical leave law.

Here is a letter my wife got this week. I want to read this to you. This is a law some people in Congress say we shouldn't enforce anymore: "Dear Mrs. Clinton, I am writing to let you know that 2 months ago my husband died of congestive heart failure after a prolonged period of several years of illness. Because your husband signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, I was able to transport him to doctor appointments and hospital visits. The act enabled me to keep my job and bring him comfort at the end of his life. I will be eternally grateful." Signed, Lynn Wade Tomko, of Highland Ranch, Colorado.

There's a lot of people out there like that. And every one of you deserves it. Every one of you.

Now, there is a bipartisan bill on health insurance reform. There's a bipartisan bill in the Congress right now, a bipartisan bill, saying at least if we can't give everybody health insurance, if we can't do that, at least we ought to be able to say when parents change jobs they and their children don't lose their health care, coverage shouldn't be tied to whether somebody in their family's been sick once or twice. And people who work for small businesses ought to be able to get—in every State in the country, they ought to be able to go into a pool that is big so they can buy insurance on the same rates that people like us who work for government or big units do. Simple, basic things. And there ought to be a longer period of time where people keep their health insurance if they lose their jobs.

On the child support enforcement, all the Governors, even the most pro-State's rights Governors, have understood and supported our efforts to have national standards of child support enforcement. Why? Because over a third of all the child support orders that are delinquent are for people who have crossed State lines. So we need a national approach to this. The welfare reform bill I have sent to Congress has that. We have to have this.

Here are the things that it has, and ask yourself if you think it's reasonable: employer reporting of new hires to catch deadbeat dads who move from job to job; uniform interstate child support laws; computerized collection of speeding up payments; streamlined efforts to identify the father in every case when the child is born; and tough new penalties, like professional license revocation for people who repeatedly refuse to pay their child support—or driver's license.

Let me tell you, I don't think most Americans—we estimate that if everybody paid the child support they owe, there would be 800,000 fewer people in this country off of welfare. You have no idea how much money you're paying as taxpayers to support children that their parents could legally be supporting and have the money to support. You don't have any idea. It's a lot of money, money that could be going into Head Start, money that could be going into Goals 2000, money that could be going into college loans. It's not right.

I could go on and on. I'm going to have more to say about the drug abuse prevention and the teen pregnancy issues later on. I will say this—we'd be down the road a little bit if the Senate hadn't played politics with Dr. Henry Foster's nomination. But I'm going to bring him back in some way and get him to help us on this because it's so important, it's a big issue.

On the drug issue, everybody talks about being tough on drugs. But you've got to do four things if you want to make a difference. You have got to work with foreign governments to cut drugs off at the source. We are busting a lot of big gangs, and we're making some real progress. And we're getting more help from foreign governments than the United States has enjoyed in many years. We've worked hard at it, and a lot of people in other countries risk their lives every day to keep your kids free of cocaine and crack. And you need to know that.

We say, why don't they do more? A lot of them put their lives on the line every day to do it. And more than ever before, we're making progress on it. We also have to break the cycle of drugs and crime by providing treatment to people who need it. It works; it does work. It doesn't always work, but two-thirds of the time, the treatment works. Now, would you rather spend a little money to have it work two-thirds of the time, or put 100 percent of those people behind bars at a greater cost to you? It does work.

We also have to punish people properly who break the law. But finally, we've got to do something to try to keep our kids off of drugs in the first place. And therefore, I think it is a mistake for the Congress to eliminate the money we're giving to your schools to promote safe and drug-free schools. Those are good programs and we shouldn't get rid of it.

I'm going to say more in the next several days about this issue of teenage smoking. But you just think about the number of people every year in America we lose because of smokingrelated illnesses. And you realize that having a whole lot of young kids get into that pipeline is pretty significant. And all the evidence is that if people don't start smoking until they're adults, that even if they smoke a little, they don't become really hooked. They don't do it a lot. They quit after a little while, and they go on and live normal lives. This is a big deal.

Most people who have serious problems with smoking started when they were children. It is now illegal to sell children cigarettes, but it happens all the time. And we have to do more to stop it. That's a family values issue—cut the cost of health care, help us meet our budget targets, keep people healthier longer, and make for more alert, effective students in your classrooms.

I just want to mention one or two other issues. Let me just say, about the minimum wage, you all clapped and I realize you agree with me—[laughter]—but a lot of Americans, every time we raise the minimum wage, there's this great hue and cry about how we're going to lose jobs, and it has never happened. And 40 percent of the people on minimum wage are women who are the sole support of their kids. And if we don't raise the minimum wage next year, it will reach in real dollar terms a 40 year low. That's the problem in America. We should be having a high-opportunity, smartwork, high-wage future, not a hard-work, lowwage future. There is no percentage in it for us to support those kind of low wages.

Let me just say a couple of words about some specific things in the education area. I wouldn't be up here if people hadn't helped me get an education. I had college loans, I had scholarships. I had six jobs—never more than three at once. [Laughter] All of that was opportunity and responsibility. The same kinds of things that are in your bill of rights and responsibility.

We know now there is a greater difference in the ability of people to earn more successively and to live out the American dream based on their level of education than ever in the entire history of the country. We know that. We know, too, that in the 1980's the only item in a family's budget that went up faster than the cost of health care was the cost of college education. We know that. Now, our administration has done two things that I'm real proud of.

First of all, we started the AmeriCorps program, which gives people a chance to serve their local communities and earn money to go to college. I thought it was sort of a Republicanlike program, you know—it was a grassroots program. There's no bureaucracy; we fund preexisting local projects in a highly competitive way. It's an empowerment program. You can't even get any money from the Government unless you work yourself to death for trying to help people solve their problems. Sounds to me like the kind of thing they're always talking about. [Laughter] Sometimes I wonder if a Republican President had proposed it, I don't think it would be a target in this budget cycle. But why would you get rid of that?

More importantly, we found—I found before I became President—when I was Governor, I met young people who were dropping out of college because they thought that the careers for which they were being trained, including many of them who wanted to be school teachers—they thought they would not be able to earn enough to meet their college loan repayment obligations.

And so, we did something remarkable, Secretary Riley, Deputy Secretary Kunin, the Education Department, we discovered that if we set up a system for the Federal Government to make direct loans, that we could loan the money at lower cost to the students and give them four different options to repay the loans so that you could—if you chose one option, you would always repay it at a certain percentage of your salary, whatever it was. So there would never be a time when repaying a loan would be a deterrent to taking it out in the first place or finishing your college education or serving the public as a teacher or a police officer or a nurse or doing something else that might not pay all the money in the world but was immensely rewarding and immensely important to the rest of society.

This direct loan program is reducing the cost to the Government, reducing the deficit, increasing the number of people who can have college loans and improving their repayment terms. It's also much less hassle for the college administrators. Who doesn't like it? The middlemen who were cut out. What are they doing? They're up in the Congress right now trying to get rid of it. Who wants to get rid of it? Not the kids who have got them, not the college administrators who administer them, not the people who are worried about the budget but the special interests that have too much influence in this Congress say, "We lost our money; we want it back. We don't care what happens to these kids." That is wrong, and you ought to stand up against it.

Now, we don't have to have a partisan, divisive fight about family values. And we don't have to argue whether we need improvements in personal conduct or political policies and economic policies. The truth is, we need a whole bunch of both. And nobody is smart enough to do everything we need to do politically and economically, and nobody will ever be good enough so that they won't be able to stand a little improvement. So this is a bogus debate.

What we must not do is let one group take one side of this debate and use it as an excuse to divide the American people and walk away from our real responsibilities to the real families that are working their hearts out to do the best they can by their children in this country. That's what we must not do.

So, let us stand together in fighting for the cause of education, the right kind of education, your kind of education—opportunity and high standards of excellence and accountability—the things you have stood for for years and years and years. That is a very important part of our Nation's family values agenda.

And let us stand together to do things about the time that the kids have to spend before they come to you and after they leave you. This does not have to be a big divide. All we have to do is to find the common ground that is already out there in every neighborhood, in every community, in every city, town, and rural area in this country. All we have to do is bring what people know in their hearts to be true in the heartland here to the halls of Government. If we do that, we can really have a family values agenda.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:33 p.m. at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Albert Shanker, president, and Edward McElroy, secretary-treasurer, American Federation of Teachers; and Sandra Feldman, president, United Federation of Teachers.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the American Federation of Teachers Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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