John F. Kennedy photo

Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, Beverly Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles, CA - (Advance Release Text)

November 02, 1960

We live in a fast moving nation. But one thing constant from the birth of our Republic has been our faith in education and our determination to make it available to all our citizens.

It was Aristotle, more than 2,000 years ago, who said: "The neglect of education ruins the constitution of the country." And Thomas Jefferson echoed these principles when he wrote to a friend in 1786 that "the most important bill is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness."

Thus the value and importance of education was at the foundation of Western thought - and was again present at the foundation of the American Republic. And in this coming week - which the President has officially proclaimed as American Education Week - we rededicate ourselves to the principle of equal educational opportunity for all regardless of race, place of birth, or wealth. But even though our basic faith in education remains unchanged, the challenges which confront our educational system today are greater, more varied, and more significant than ever before in our history.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." And today the frontline of the battle for freedom is not in the trenches - or by the missile-launching pads - it is in our classrooms, and universities - in the jungle schools of Africa, or the remote instruction huts of north-east Brazil - it is wherever free societies are struggling to train the minds of the young.

Today I want to discuss education with you - the current crisis in our educational system is a crisis caused by our failure to meet our responsibilities over the past 8 years; and tell you what I think we must do in the future to build an educational system to meet our expanding needs.

Underlying any discussion of our educational problems are two basic principles: first, the Federal Government has responsibility to help insure a decent education to all Americans. It was John Adams who wrote that, "The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it." And from our earliest days we have followed this principle.

Even before the Constitution was adopted the Founding Fathers reserved one lot in every township in the Northwest Territory for the support of education.

The Morrill Act of 1865 established the land-grant colleges. The GI bill supported the education of a generation of Americans.

The Federal Government in recent years has passed laws granting loans to students and aiding schools in areas where Federal activity increased the burden of local school systems.

Today the need for talent and skill is a national need affecting the national welfare. And the harsh fact of the matter is that our States and cities cannot afford to make the needed improvements in our educational system. State and local government per capita expenditures for public schools have risen 140 percent in the past 10 years - State indebtedness has increased 500 percent - and many school districts can no longer afford to float school bond issues. In too many States, the choice is not between Federal aid and State aid - the choice is between Federal aid and inadequate schools.

The second basic principle is our commitment to complete local control of our school systems. Despite its many aid programs to schools and universities the Federal Government has never interfered in education and it never will. Today one-quarter of all schoolchildren attend classes taught by teachers paid in part by Federal funds - but there has been no Federal interference or control. Today 70 percent of all university research is federally financed - but there has been no Federal interference or control. And today all Democratic bills for aid to education provide that the money shall be given to the States for distribution, thus insuring there can be no Federal interference or control.

Where then have we failed in the past 8 years? And what must we do for the future?

First, we have failed to provide adequate classrooms for our expanding school population. Today we have 131,000 classrooms fewer than we need - and, at our current rate of construction shortage is actually increasing. The result is double shifts, obsolete, overcrowded, and even dangerous classrooms.

In one community a dog kennel was converted into a school where four classes were being held. In an adjoining town the school superintendent said, "I only wish I had a dog kennel to use." In another area the school board is renting 2 windowless, cinder block factories to house 883 children - while in other cities kindergarten children are being taught in firetraps.

Yet the Republicans have opposed virtually every Democratic effort to relieve this critical classroom shortage.

In 1957, a majority of the Republicans in the House killed a bill to aid school construction. In 1958, every Republican on the key House Labor and Education Committee voted against aid to school construction. And in 1960, the latest Democratic effort to help the States build needed classrooms was defeated when 67 percent of all Republicans in the House and all four Republicans on the Rules Committee blocked its passage.

And so one of the first items on the Democratic agenda in 1961 is the passage of an adequate bill for school construction.

Second, we have failed to provide enough well-trained and well-paid teachers. Today we need 135,000 more teachers. Almost 3 million schoolchildren are being taught by teachers working on substandard certificates. And as our school population expands in the next decade, 1 1/2 million more teachers - one-third of all our college graduates - will be needed to keep our educational system going. We are not attracting bright young men and women into teaching because the salaries which we pay our teachers are shamefully low.

The Republican Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare says "these low salaries are the most serious weakness in our country's educational system." And Mr. Nixon himself has said teachers' salaries are a "national disgrace." Yet it was Mr. Nixon who cast the tie-breaking vote killing a Democratic bill giving the States money to increase teachers' salaries.

In 1961, a Democratic Congress - under the leadership of a Democratic President - will enact a bill to raise teachers' salaries, a bill which can help start the flow of urgently needed new teachers toward our schools.

Third, we have failed to take steps to improve the quality of education. Classrooms and teachers alone will not mean a better education for all our children. We must search for new teaching methods, new classroom techniques, new ways of presenting old subjects and imaginative ways of presenting new subjects. Already significant work is going on. Advanced physics and mathematics are being taught to high-school children through revolutionary new techniques. Closed circuit television is bringing lectures, plays, and experiments into hundreds of classrooms. Efforts are being made to mobilize the resources of the community - mothers with advanced degrees, retired teachers, and other skilled people - to give individual instruction to gifted youngsters. Yet the Federal Government has virtually ignored this research - with its great promise for the future of education - and, as a result, research has often lagged or been halted altogether.

Therefore, I propose the establishment of an Educational Extension Service within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This service will do for education what the Agricultural Extension Service has done for our farmers for the past 75 years. It will conduct and guide research into new teaching techniques and methods - into the problems of our school systems and programs for their solution - making the result of its work freely available to all of our 48,600 school districts.

Fourth, has been our failure to make a decent college education available to every young man or woman with the ability to pursue it. The dream of every American family is to send their children to college. For today a college education is the doorway to opportunity - to a good job and a good life. Yet last year more than 100,000 young men and women in the top 10 percent of their class could not go to college because they did not have the money. And as the cost of an average college education rises from $10,000 today to $15,000 in 1970, many more will be excluded. No American should be denied the right to attend college because he or she cannot afford it - and America cannot afford to waste the skills of those whom high costs are keeping from college.

Therefore, I propose the enactment of a Student Loan Insurance Act - modeled on the highly successful program which has been adopted by my native State of Massachusetts. Under this program the Federal Government - in return for a small premium - would guarantee student loans made by colleges and universities. Thus colleges would be able to secure funds adequate to meet the pressing financial needs of all of its students - so that no able student would have to leave school because he could not pay his expenses. Although a small special revolving fund would be required, Federal payments would be made only in the unlikely event of default. Basic responsibility for repayment would be in the hands of the student, and the loan program itself would be administered by the individual college or university. In this way we can make sure that no bright young American is denied a college education.

But loans and scholarships will not be effective if our colleges cannot accommodate a vastly increased flow of students in the sixties. In the next decade our college population will double. By 1970, we will need to spend more than $6 billion more than we are now spending if we are to provide facilities for 3 million more students and pay 300,000 more teachers. We must build more college buildings in the next 10 years than we have built in the past 200 years. Under Harry Truman the Democrats established a loan program for construction of college buildings. Last year only vigorous Democratic efforts saved this program from destruction by Republican opposition. In 1961, we must strengthen and expand this construction loan program - under which $1 billion have been loaned without a single default - in order to make sure that higher education will be available for all those who want and deserve it. With these programs we can reverse the failures of the past 8 years and we can begin to rebuild the strength of our educational system, preparing it for the critical years ahead.

I have spoken in this campaign of the new frontiers which America will cross in the sixties. In many ways education is the gateway to those new frontiers. For through the education of our young people we develop those resources of mind and spirit which America possesses in such abundance, and which alone can provide the strength, the imagination, and the creative intelligence which the troubled decade ahead will demand.

Abraham Lincoln once said that "He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help." We of the Democratic Party criticize our educational system - and the leadership which has permitted it to falter - because we have the heart to help, and, even more, the programs and the leadership which can build an educational system of which all Americans can be proud.

John F. Kennedy, Speech by Senator John F. Kennedy, Beverly Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles, CA - (Advance Release Text) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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