Remarks at a Briefing for the White House Workshop on Choice in Education


January 10, 1989


Usually this is in the middle of the stage, but I notice they did put it to the right. [Laughter] Well, I thank Ken, and thank you all for being here. We're here to talk about a remarkable advance in American education, an idea whose time has come. Or it might be better to say, whose time has come again. For when we talk about choice in public education, what we mean first and foremost is parental choice. We're talking about reasserting the right of American parents to play a vital -- perhaps the central -- part in designing the kind of education they believe their children need.


I don't need to rehearse the litany and cite the evidence to this audience. We've been talking about these matters for 8 years now, and the evidence is overwhelming. Choice works, and it works with a vengeance. Whether it's a Harlem school district in which scores have risen dramatically because parents are now permitted to choose which school to send their children to, or the marvelous program in Minnesota that is fostering unprecedented competition among public schools to make them more attractive to parents and students, choice is the most exciting thing that's going on in America today.


Choice represents a return to some of our most basic notions about education. In particular, programs emphasizing choice reflect the simple truth that the keys to educational success are schools and teachers that teach, and parents who insist that their children learn. They must work in concert, respecting each other's particular concerns and needs, not second-guessing each other.


And choice in education is the wave of the future because it represents a return to some of our most basic American values. Choice in education is no mere abstraction. Like its economic cousin, free enterprise, and its political cousin, democracy, it affords hope and opportunity. Can anyone doubt that, after hearing these splendid young people testify about how choice has changed their lives? Choice recognizes the principle that there is no one best way for all of us. It allows schools to excel at something special, rather than trying, and failing, to be all things to all people.


Education was one of the means by which this country first grew great and strong and powerful, through the extraordinary efforts of ordinary Americans to better themselves and make a better life for their families and their children. The key step in the most important domestic effort of this century, the civil rights movement, was the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court. And that, of course, was about affording black children equal access to public schools. We all know how significant that was because we all understand that without appropriate education it's nearly impossible for the disadvantaged to improve themselves.


All Americans can consider the particular triumph of those who have immigrated to our shores from scores of lands, scores of cultures, speaking a hundred different tongues. The struggle to make their way in a country whose language they didn't speak was a hard one, and almost every sociological study of American immigrants tells the same story: those that did best economically are those whose passion for education drove them and their children. The -- I get tangled up in my bandage every once in a while here -- [laughter] -- but as I say, drove them and their children, and that meant paying attention. It meant making sure homework was done, report cards were signed, and that their children were always challenged and never bored. In this way, they knew, their children would make it as Americans.


For too long, I think, we were content as Americans to imagine that our nation and our society were so inherently strong and successful that they could continue to run on automatic pilot. The schools had done well and should continue to do well; we could turn our attention elsewhere. Well, if we were on automatic pilot in the past, we've learned we have to work the controls by ourselves every day. And that's why a choice in education is so important. Parents are at the controls. At the same time, teachers know that their students are going home to parents who'll serve as their partners in getting the homework done and keeping the excitement and enthusiasm up. Students won't be marking time in school. Instead, they'll be preparing for an American future in which literacy and technological skill will be more vital to their chances for prosperity than ever before. Engaged parents and engaged teachers mean engaged students and a better educated America.


Now, you'll be hearing from some other folks, including especially a good friend of mine -- name happens to be George Bush. So, I'll get off of here, and I want to thank all of you for all that you're doing. And God bless all of you.


Note: The President spoke at 10 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Kenneth M. Duberstein, Chief of Staff to the President.