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Remarks by the First Lady at the Department of Education

February 02, 2009

MRS. OBAMA: Well, this is a good thing to see this department fired up and ready to go, right? (Applause.) I am -- I am honored to be here this afternoon. First let me tell you that you couldn't be luckier than to have as your leader this guy by the name of Arne Duncan. (Applause.) Barack and I, my brother, my family, we've known Arne for a very long time, and we've seen his growth, his leadership develop over the years. And he is someone who is committed, hardworking, passionate. But he's someone who is fair, who is honest, who is decent, and who knows that getting to any goal means you have to build a team from within, from the bottom up. And I know he's already beginning to do this. This kind of turnout and enthusiasm is sort of for me, but, you know, you're behind -- (laughter) -- but I know you're also excited about your new secretary. (Applause.)

So I'm honored to be here, to share the stage with Arne, as well as all of these public servants who have dedicated a lifetime to education and to public service.

Arne wanted me to talk a little bit about myself, but I always sort of feel like, after two years of a campaign, you know -- (laughter) -- you know everything. But I think the most important thing to tell you or to remind you is that I am a product of your work. I'm a product of people who were investing every day in the education of regular kids who'd grown up on the south side of Chicago, kids on the north side, folks in the south, in the west -- young people who oftentimes comes into these systems not knowing their own power and their own potential, believing that there's some magic out there, to great things. But because of the work that you've put in, you've taught us and helped many of us understand that it is our own hard work and our own belief in self, our commitment to pushing ourselves along, building great communities and families, and reinvesting that energy once we have some successes.

I am a product of your work. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the public schools that nurtured me and helped me along. And I am committed, as well as my husband, to ensuring that more kids like us and kids around this country, regardless of their race, their income, their status, their -- the property values in their neighborhoods, get access to an outstanding education. (Applause.)

So as Arne said, this is the first stop in many. I'm going to be visiting agencies throughout this administration to do just something simple, and that's to say thank you -- thank you before we even begin the work, because so many of you have been here struggling and pushing for decades. And Barack and I want to say thank you for what you've done and thank you for what you will continue to do. But we also know that there are new faces coming into this work, and we want to welcome you, and thank you for the hard work that you're going to put in.

And I'm going to spend the next several weeks or months, however long it takes, going from agency to agency, just to say hello, to learn, to listen, to take information back where possible. But truthfully, my task here is to say thank you and roll up your sleeves, because we have a lot of work to do. (Applause.)

But the issues that we're collectively working on affect all of us, all of these communities. They affect you and your children and your grandchildren and those of your friends and your family. We're all in this together. So we have a stake in educating every single child, regardless, as I've said, of background and income.

So the Department of Education is going to be at the forefront of many of the things that we have to do in this administration. And we're going to need that energy in these times of economic challenge. We're going to be making investments -- and I shouldn't say "we," but the administration "we." With these investments we're going to create good jobs, as we renovate and modernize more than 10,000 schools and improve -- (applause) -- the learning environment for about 5 million children across this country. We'll be able to increase Pell grants and make college more affordable -- (applause) -- for 7 million students, and give nearly 4 million students tax credits for tuition. Imagine that. (Applause.)

And with these investments that we hope to make through this stimulus package, we'll be able to prevent teacher layoffs -- (applause) -- and education cuts in hard-hit states. We need to keep teachers in the classrooms throughout this time.

We'll be able to preserve early childhood education programs. (Applause.) And I know all of you all know here the importance of investing in early childhood education, and imagine what we can do with millions of dollars of more investment in this area. We can expand opportunities in low-income districts for all students, and particularly for students with disabilities. (Applause.)

And then as we look over the longer term, these investments will accelerate education reform, one of Arne's specialties, by funding and rewarding innovation -- innovative approaches to teaching and learning, such as teacher quality initiatives, school turnaround programs and, of course, charter schools.

There's a lot of work to do, and we're going to need you. I've said that for two years. Sometimes I don't ask for much other than prayer and hard work, and then a little more prayer and then a little more hard work. (Laughter and applause.) But we've got a great leader in Arne, and a wonderful leader in our President Obama. (Applause.) And more importantly, we have to remember that the children of this country are counting on all of us. They're looking to us for direction. They're looking to us for that ray of hope. They're looking to us to help them figure out how to make it through.

And we have everything we need right here and now to make that happen. So we're counting on you every step of the way. So thank you for taking the time to come. Thank you for your service. And let's get to work. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the Department of Education Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320270

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