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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the Business Roundtable

1989-06-05

Thank you very much, Ed. Thank you so much. Barbara and I are delighted to be here. And, Ed, to you, my sincere thanks not just for the invitation and the introduction but for all you do for education. My respects to John Akers, who is the chairman of your human resources task force. My respects to the Members of the Senate and the House that are here tonight and to members of my Cabinet. I see our Secretary of Education here, Larry Cavazos, who is doing an outstanding job -- Larry, delighted to see you. And one of your own, or one from industry, Bruce Gelb, I see sitting here, who's now heading the U.S. Information Agency, taking on a very important job. So, I'm going to stop right there before I get in trouble. [Laughter]

But I spent some time today just thinking about the trip that was just completed and then how I would tie that in to what I'd be saying here tonight. But let me just say a word on the European trip. I am convinced that the alliance that is so vital to American interests -- and, I think, to interests of every Western European country -- are in good shape. I think the alliance itself is together, perhaps stronger, and more united than it's ever been. The spirit of Brussels was one of change and opportunity and the challenge we face in moving towards a future of freedom, prosperity, and peace; and I've labeled it ``beyond containment.''

And many of you people in this room know very well what I'm talking about when I talk about a relationship with the Soviet Union that goes beyond containment. And admittedly, a lot has to be done in terms of performance. But I think, with the alliance together -- the challenge now to Mr. Gorbachev to come forward and make these serious reductions to parity in U.S. and Soviet forces -- I think we're on the move; I think we're on the offense. And I must say I was very, very pleased by the firm and united reaction from our European allies.

But even as we talked about the matter of arms control and arms reductions, the subject that joins us here tonight, the subject of education, came up -- everybody recognizing that we're moving into a much more competitive age. And education is a means of equipping ourselves to excel in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. That is one of the things we're facing. Education can be the root of mutual understanding and can make an enormous step towards peace in the world.

And so, before I mention a subject which I told Ed I'm a little reluctant to talk about with Larry Cavazos here and with many of you already involved in it, let me just say a word about another subject, the one that has dominated the news for the last 48 hours, and before, as well. I'm talking about the tragic, deplorable events taking place in China. I have a special affection for the Chinese people. I've kept up my knowledge of China and my relationship with various leaders there. I've been back to China five times since Barbara and I left in 1975. And she's been back six times. And it is with a saddened heart that I, joining many of you, watched the proceedings in Tiananmen Square.

I was so moved today by the bravery of that individual that stood alone in front of the tanks rolling down the main avenue there. And I heard some speculation on the television on what is it that gives a young man the strength, gives him the courage, to stand up in front of a column of tanks right there in front of the world. And I'll tell you, it was very moving, because all of us have seen the bravery and the determination of the students and the workers, seen their commitment to peaceful protest. And that image, I think, is going to be with us for a long time. And all I can say to him, wherever he might be, or to people around the world is: We are and we must stand with him. And that's the way it is, and that's the way it's going to be.

I know that many in this room do what we have encouraged you to do -- do business with the People's Republic of China. And I don't want to disturb that. I don't want to hurt the very business community in China and here that has moved things forward toward democracy. I did take some steps that some of you may have seen in the military side today. I am convinced that there are many in the People's Liberation Army who are sympathetic to the demonstrators. But I think the way to move, to take action, and to express the outrage we feel is on that military supply side. And I'm very hopeful that this message we sent today will be strong enough to convince the leaders of the Chinese military to go back to the policy of restraint and negotiation and peace, as opposed to this crushing of the human spirit in Tiananmen Square.

Tonight, I want to focus on the partnership that we can build to create the world-class education system that this country needs. A gathering like this is a very, very good sign -- all of you busy. And you've got the Business Roundtable; the chamber; the NAM, National Association of Manufacturers; the American Business Conference coming together on this matter of urgent concern to our great country. And our schools are in trouble; they're in real trouble. And that means our kids are in trouble, too. So, what are we going to do about it?

Well, together we can lead a nationwide crusade for excellence in education. You won't find too many times when the subject is education that I'll come out against studying, but this is one of them. We've spent plenty of time studying the problem, hundreds of studies in the past few years alone, showing that our schools simply do not measure up. And we've all heard the stories about the kids who can't find the U.S. on a map, and we've seen the low test scores. And so, I really believe that the time for study is past, and it's time to take action.

Improving our schools is going to take a national effort, one that involves all levels of government, parents, local communities, the private sector as well. And it's going to take an honest effort. And if we're serious about excellence in education, we've got to put the politics on the back burner. And Ed was telling me about the magnificent program you had here today with people from all elements in the educational community, and I think that's a very, very good thing.

I've heard plenty of complaints that we're not spending enough. The typical Washington reaction says, well, if you've got a problem, double the spending, and that'll take care of it. The fact is that we spend more per capita than many of our toughest competitors. And as a nation, we devote more than 0 billion a year to educating our children. And that's not stingy; it's staggering. And the resources are there, and it's how we put those resources to work that counts.

And there's something more that we need to recognize: We can multiply success. There's no monopoly on ideas, no one right answer when it comes to improving our schools. We can learn from each other. Look at the States, today's entrepreneurs of education policy, if you will. We're witnessing the emergence of 50 laboratories of reform -- 50 States, 50 laboratories of reform. And, yes, Federal leadership is crucial; and as you know, we've introduced a package of education initiatives designed to reward excellence, improve accountability, and promote quality schools through choice. I expect our ideas to get full and fair hearings when Congress begins working on our bill next week.

And right now, I want to highlight an idea that's proved its value in the business world, an idea that can play a central role in education as well -- and I'm talking about competition. The business world knows that competition brings out the best in individuals and institutions. And the same is true for our schools; proof already exists. America's postsecondary education system is widely recognized as the strongest and most successful system in the world, and it's also extremely competitive. Schools compete to attract the best students and first-rate faculties, and the plain fact is that this competition is good. Superior schools inspire others to reach for excellence. And our elementary and secondary schools are the weak links in our system. Competition and choice can help us make them stronger.

But what government can do is only part of the story. In the private sector and in this business community, hundreds of companies, thousands of employees are going into the classrooms to help children learn. And you didn't wait for a signal from Washington; you saw an opportunity, and you got involved. And the numbers are impressive: 186 corporations from the Business Roundtable alone and hundreds of others as well. And that tells me that the great American tradition of serving others is alive and thriving in corporate America.

Improving our schools is a national problem, but the search for solutions must take place on the local level, in our communities. Local solutions work. Last month, just before I went abroad, I was up in Rochester to visit the Wilson Magnet School, a school that just turned itself around. And 10 years ago, Wilson was plagued by crime and plunging grades and, indeed, urban flight. And today that Wilson Magnet School is one of the top-ranked high schools in the State of New York, a night-and-day change. And you might say, well, how did it happen? Over and over, everyone that I asked there said, I have one answer, and that answer: commitment. They used that word over and over again -- commitment on the part of parents, teachers, students, and commitment on the part of the corporation that calls that community home. Eastman Kodak contributed the equipment and the expertise that helped bring learning alive for the kids at Wilson.

And I saw those Kodak employees sitting side by side with the students at the computers, pitching in, doing a whale of a job. And today Wilson has many more applicants than it has space for students. And it's a success story that I'd like to see repeated all across this country. And business, it was you; it was business that played this key role. Efforts like the one at Wilson, like the ones that many of your companies are now engaged in, are producing real, lasting results -- one school at a time, one student at a time. And all of us know the magnitude of the challenge, and all of us can do our part to strengthen our schools.

And that's why I'm announcing tonight the creation of an advisory committee, my first as President, to focus on education: the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee. And I'll call on this Committee to bring me innovative ideas, to bring together leaders from business and labor, educators at every level, State and local government officials, and the media in a partnership to improve our schools.

The students who need our help can't wait. It's early June; school's about to end for this year. And on graduation day, how many kids won't be walking across that stage to get their diploma? How many kids who walk out of that classroom a few weeks from now won't be back in September? How many will get that degree and go out into the world, come to work in your companies without the skills they need? Even a single young man or woman is one too many, and yet there are millions.

Everyone in this room, I know, shares my concern. And tonight I want to issue a challenge, a corporate call to action, if you will: four ways that you can make a real difference. Start by raising the literacy levels. Someone once asked Ben Franklin who he thought was the most pitiful man in the world, and he said, ``A lonesome man on a rainy day who does not know how to read.'' And Franklin understood that literacy is an open door to opportunity and self-knowledge, to history, culture, and a world of experience. But make no mistake, reading isn't just a rainy day diversion: It's a survival skill. And how can young people do the job if they can't read the job application?

Some of you have spoken to me about this problem. I know many of you have been engaged with Barbara in her effort to help make this country more literate. And tonight, I ask all of you to start at home and your offices, on the shop floor; make it your business to help every employee who can't read but wants desperately to learn.

And second, let's raise our sights and our standards. All of you know the kind of new employees that you're looking for, and that's why it makes sense to work with the schools to create programs that develop skills for the real world, for the millions of new jobs that our economy is creating each year. And all of you know how difficult it is for your companies to keep pace in a world where change is measured in milliseconds. And we must do all we can to equip our children, our future work force, with the thinking skills they'll need to make careers in the information age.

You can't start too early. IBM is working in partnership with Head Start in Baltimore, teaching 4-year-olds how to use computers. And listen to what one mother says: ``The computer will be just like the telephone; everyone will have one. My kids have to learn this, and so do I.'' That may be a good sales program for John Akers, but it's also a whale of a good education program, I'll tell you. [Laughter]

We have to understand, and we have to be involved. And many of us grew up in a time when a worker would spend an entire career in the same job, and those days are ending. Workers entering the economy today can expect to train and retrain several times to keep pace with changed working conditions. And it's up to our corporations to create a working environment where employee education and retraining and training never stops. From now on, in America, learning must be a lifelong occupation.

And third, I challenge every CEO in this room to get involved -- personally involved -- with the schools in your own community. Walk into the classroom not as a CEO but as a concerned parent, as a good citizen, right there in the community. And I know you and your companies are doing a great deal now to improve our schools, but it's got to be personal. Be a catalyst for change.

Let me tell you about a businessman I know in New Orleans who did exactly that -- Patrick Taylor. He walked into one of the worst schools in New Orleans and made a promise to the entire eighth grade class, over 200 kids. And he told them if they kept up a B average and graduated he'd guarantee that they go to college. And here's how he looks at it: You don't always get from individuals what you expect. But if you expect nothing, you're going to get nothing. And Pat Taylor is telling those kids that they've got a future, and he's ready to help them get there.

And now the last challenge: Everyone in this room is here because you know how much education matters. And I want you to take a message to the companies who aren't here tonight. Reach out, bring others in this business community on board. I want to see all of America's corporations involved in a truly common effort.

And I know that you've got the energy and the ingenuity to meet these challenges. Start now! I want to hear from you by next Labor Day -- see the report card, if you will, your action plan for excellence in education. And if I don't hear from you, I'll get Barbara Bush on your case. [Laughter] She's told me over and over again about many of you, of your personal and your company's interest in literacy and in education in general. And she has been inspired by what so many of you have already done. She's your cheerleader -- for those who are already constructively involved. You've taken your skills and resources into our classrooms because you know the bottom line: We can't have a world-class economy with second-class schools.

So, take the challenges to heart, build on the fine work that's already started and that's already going on in a big way. And thank you for all you are doing, and thank you for what I'm confident all of you will be doing in the future. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 7:12 p.m. in the Capitol Ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Edmund T. Pratt, Jr., chairman of the Business Roundtable.

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