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Remarks to the Five-State Legislators Conference in Helena, Montana

September 18, 1989

Thank you, Governor Stephens. Thank you, Governor, very much, once again, for the warm welcome to your State. Maybe four-fifths of this crowd out here, inasmuch as it's a five-State conference, will join me in thanking you for your hospitality. And then your own troops -- you can take care of them any way you want. [Laughter]

But I am delighted to be here. My respects to Representative Peck and Speaker Vincent, Senate President Galt, and ladies and gentlemen. Thank you again, Governor, and to everybody involved in all the arrangements for a trip of this nature. It's a pleasure to address this five-State conference, and it's timely.

You know, being here reminds me of that TV series a few months back. Remember "Lonesome Dove"? Cattle drive -- started down in Texas and wound up in Montana. Well, here's one Texan who's followed suit today and, who, because of your hospitality, is feeling anything but lonesome. I don't know if your slavedriver leaders of the conference let you go outside, but I was really deeply moved by that wonderful reception and wonderful meeting out there in the front of this lovely capitol. So, I'm delighted to be here. I'm sorry Barbara is not. She happens to be in the Panhandle of Texas today, in Amarillo, and so is not with us, but she would have loved it, too.

Let me just share a few words of appreciation -- Henry David Thoreau, who said, "Eastward I go only by force, but westward I go free." And those words hit home on a day like this. For it's freedom that moves the mind and spirit as you travel west from Washington. And you see the Mississippi, mighty and meandering, and the Great Plains, from Air Force One -- a giant, sprawling checkerboard -- and then the Rockies, and a sampling of some of God's best handiwork. And you're free to enjoy this Big Sky and dream dreams as big as all America. But as we dream, we must also act -- act as wise stewards of this generation, for all the generations to come.

Speaking at the Montana centennial celebration a few minutes ago, I talked of one kind of stewardship: the safeguarding of our national resources. The great outdoors is precious but fragile. To preserve it, we must protect it. And let me again say here, as I said outside, I'm very proud to have Bill Reilly, the head of EPA, doing his job, and traveling with me here today, too. He's an outstanding environmentalist, a very sensible man; and already I think he's making a real difference.

In talking about the preservation, yet, protection, I'll confess I sometimes feel like a student advising his teacher. For I needn't tell the people in this audience from these five States about hunting and hiking and rafting and fishing. I had a terrible streak in Maine this summer on the fishing. But stewardship can mean preserving the purity of our living environment, for America can only be as beautiful as her people are vigilant. Stewardship can also mean -- and this is what this meeting is about -- preserving our teaching and learning environment, for America can only be as great as her children are educated. And it's this kind of stewardship that I just want to talk to you briefly about. And it's the reason, of course, that each one of you is here -- many of you from centennial States -- sharing ideas and responsibility to help shape the next hundred years of American education.

We hear a lot today about our education problems. And we should because the problems are real: a too high dropout rate; too little parental involvement; erratic standards; too little accountability by teachers and students; schools that are unsafe and wracked by drug use and drug trafficking; kids ill-equipped to read, write, or understand new technologies. And these problems must have solutions. This conference hopes to find some. Because when it comes to education, I really feel strongly Washington does not know best: the people do. And nowhere is that truer than here in the American West, where local values and school autonomy are as revered as love of freedom and love of country.

And perhaps nowhere is it more embodied than in this magnificent painting just behind me -- a Russell. It has been called Charles Russell's greatest work, entitled "Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole." And it says a lot about the West and, strangely enough, about western education. To the right stand Lewis and Clark, asking questions about a strange world, willing and needing to learn. And in the center are the Indians, ready to share knowledge and lead Lewis and Clark along unknown terrain.

For decades after, this spirit of freedom and discovery spurred the West. And, yes, it was tough. Life was hard. And there were homes to be built and schools to be constructed so that kids could learn. And how did these pioneers do it? The way the West has always done it. They were selfless and independent, and they were resolute and unafraid.

Let me take just a couple of minutes to remember how it was, not as some trip down memory lane but as a profile in the stewardship of education, a profile of courage and self-discipline, lessons as timely to 1989 as to the pioneers of 1889.

Remember, first, the schools themselves -- names like Dry Run and Sitting Up, Crocus Hill -- and their condition: small, often only one room -- dirt floors, log walls. And remember the communities that built them. What a task it was. Often, supplies were limited, but there were always enough hands. For communities pitched in -- lumberjack, carpenter, mason. Whatever it took, those kids would have their school.

And remember, too, the students -- just getting in to school -- we know that from our history -- mission impossible. In Chinook, Montana, almost a hundred years ago, a 10-year-old, Lillian Miller, needed sturdy shoes -- her little log school was 7 miles from home. And once at school, here's what she and others found: makeshift furniture -- students sat on boxes or benches. Books? They were more elusive than prospectors' gold. Four or five kids studying from a single volume. Just think of it. Think of how those students must have loved to learn, for look what they endured.

And when it came to love or endurance, no one eclipsed their teachers. They were the first stewards of American education. To begin with, think of their problems: leaking roofs, rooms full of kids of all ages, and skunks beneath the schoolhouse -- imagine what that did for student discipline. And think, then, of their pay. That was really a problem -- less than $30 a month. And privacy; what privacy? Teachers were often boarded in small houses with larger families. And they often doubled as a community leader.

And then there were the parents. And they had to run a farm, raise a family, fight off everything from claim jumpers to bears. And what's more, they housed kids from distant families, caring for them like their own, so that every child might have the chance to learn. For they realized the future lay in their children, through education.

These pioneers knew, as we do, that education can carve a better life. And they knew that true learning -- basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic -- don't stem from trendy curricula. Rather, true learning stems from values that are always in style, values like "Do unto others;" values that tell kids why drugs are public enemy number one and detail a program, as our administration has, to defeat that enemy. And in that context, let me say: This national strategy needs your help. We need the States to toughen their laws: mandatory time for weapon offenders; no plea-bargaining on guns; the death penalty for heinous drug criminals; and more police, prosecutors, and prisons so that vicious thugs will be pursued, prosecuted, put away for good. And these steps will help make learning possible and allow teachers to teach values like self-respect, good citizenship, and patriotism, values as central to the American West as the bravery that tamed its frontier.

I guess the bottom line is that no government planner told these pioneers how to structure courses or how long the school year should be. They decided right there. They didn't need Washington to know that those closest to the community best understand its priorities, and nor do you today. I'm talking about local school boards, teachers, parents working with each other or in a partnership with all levels of government.

As a partner, let me pledge to you: Our administration will listen. I meant it when I said earlier Washington doesn't know best, the people do. For I reject implicitly the notion of Federal mandates -- Federal mandates back telling the State legislatures or the Governor what they have to do. I reject Federal mandates, Federal bullying, in education. Instead, what we need and what I'm asking for are local ideas, local creativity, and more local autonomy.

The plain truth is that our educational system is not making the grade. In a recent comparison of 13-year-old students in the United States and five other nations, America placed last in mathematics and near last in science. Spending more money on education than most other countries, we're getting less return on our investment. And it's time, then -- and you sense this -- it's time, then, for change -- perhaps radical change -- to find new ways to improve educational performance. And that's why over the past several months I have met with groups from the American Federation of Teachers to the National Association of School Boards, and from mayors to elected officials to many State legislators. And it's why we're meeting today. For I know how important State legislators are. You appropriate the money; you make the programs possible. And you are often experts on education. And yet you can't do it alone, any more than Washington. Only through partnerships -- government serving as a catalyst -- can we make American education number one.

Accordingly, in April I sent to the Congress the Educational Excellence Act of 1989. Our program has four objectives: first, to reward excellence; second, to see that Federal dollars help those most in need; third, our program demands educational accountability; and fourth, it supports greater flexibility and choice. We want to create a $500 million program to reward schools that improve the most and a new magnet schools or excellence program, helping parents choose which public schools their children will attend.

And then there's alternative certification, allowing talented Americans to teach in the classroom, and then special Presidential awards for the best teachers. And through a new initiative of the National Science Scholars, we want to increase incentive to excel in science, math, and in engineering. The 1989 Education Act seeks to invest in the kids, and their kids, who will truly shape the next 100 years.

This conference, I believe, can help advance that goal, as can ideas of citizens from Maine to California, and so can an unprecedented event which occurs next week: the Nation's first Presidential education summit. We will gather to talk, to think, to exchange ideas: ideas about how to boost teacher recruitment and retention, and increase the choices for parents and students; ideas on how best to coordinate the role of Federal, State, and local governments and instill a drug-free and crime-free environment in our schools; in short, ideas on how to spur educational reform and return power to the people.

Our summit will be as wide-ranging as the West. So, let your Governors know precisely what you think. And if you do, summit participants will reaffirm the central lesson of the centennial pioneers: that only together can we truly educate America's children. For education is our most enduring legacy, vital to everything we are and can become.

What a legacy they have given us, these pioneers of a century ago, and what a responsibility we have. So, let us meet it, so that a hundred years from now future generations will say of us: They taught their children well.

I am impressed with what you're doing. Five States, a room full of committed people: you really can make a difference, and we want to work with you. Thank you for the privilege of sharing this occasion. God bless you for your commitment, and God bless this great State, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:32 p.m. in the house chamber of the State capitol. In his remarks, he referred to State Representative Ray Peck, Speaker of the State House John Vincent, and President of the State Senate Jack E. Galt. Representatives from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho attended the conference.

George Bush, Remarks to the Five-State Legislators Conference in Helena, Montana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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