Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Local High School Honor Students

May 23, 1983

The President. Barbara, thank you for those very kind words. And if you'll forgive me, though, there were times when I was more concerned with just remaining eligible for the football team -- [laughter] -- than the scholastic achievement.

But I'm delighted to be here and to welcome you, the best of the classes of '83. And you are that. Now, it makes me remember back to my own graduation, which wasn't too long ago. [Laughter] As a matter of fact, it was exactly -- [inaudible] -- years ago. [Laughter]

But your parents are proud of you. Obviously, General Motors and the television stations are proud of you, and that's why they're sponsoring these events. But you might be interested to know, I think, that the Nation is proud of you.

You know we've had a commission studying the educational system, and they have just come in with their report. And it's an alarming report about overall education.

One of the figures in this report indicates that, compared to the students of other nations, on the average, we are way below the students of those other nations. But applying directly to you here, who are the leaders, the top 9 percent of American students rank equal to or above the top 9 percent in all those other countries. It is only the overall average that reflects what we think has been a decline in education. And you're in that top 9 percent.

So, one of these days, you're going to be the leaders that we'll turn the country over to. And anytime I've had an opportunity to meet students like yourselves, I find myself coming home reassured that the country's going to be in good hands when it is turned over to you for your leadership.

Now, rather than my going on with a monolog that'll sound like a graduation speech -- and you have to listen to one of those -- I think that we could have a dialog rather than a monolog -- and with the limited time that we have. And I see that there's already a lineup, and since there's more on the right than there are on the left, I'll start with on the right and then exchange microphones here.

Yes.

Employment

Q. Mr. President, my name is Arthur Fuller from Roosevelt Senior High School in Washington, D.C. And I would like to know, dealing with employment, do you feel the graduating class of 1983 has any more advantages than the previous ones?

The President. Well, when you say the previous ones, do you mean -- --

Q. Previous graduation classes.

The President. But, I mean, through how many years back?

Q. From the past 10 years.

The President. Well, you have the one disadvantage in that there is an unemployment problem that is -- we've been talking about it here at this table -- that is due, in part, to the recession and due, in part, to a structural change going on in our country of new industries coming up and some older industries that will not require the same number of employees.

But I think that you have a great opportunity because of that structural fact and the new industries coming up. That's why we're emphasizing in government now retraining, rather than government programs for just make-work to give people an income through the hard times -- to retrain for these new industries and the high technology industries and so forth that are coming along, and the communications industries.

And I would say that you -- and I know that most of you will probably continue your education on, but those who don't, there is a great opportunity now to take training for jobs in these new upcoming and growing industries. And back there in that period so long ago in which I kind of ignored the number of years, it happened to me. There was a brand new industry then called radio. And I made up my mind that's what I wanted to be, and that's where I started my career and wound up broadcasting major league baseball and big-time football and so forth. But it was a brand new industry, and brand new industries like that are seeking young people that they can bring them in, in the ground floor, and train them and bring them up believing in the future of their industry.

Job Training Programs

Q. Good afternoon, Mr. President. I am Archie Ray III, a senior at Dunbar Senior High School here in Washington, D.C. As you know, the American technological industry has had a drastic setback. Is there any possibility of private industry and government uniting in order to solve this dilemma?

The President. Yes, as a matter of fact, it has already taken place. There are training programs going on at the private sector. Our government job training program, which I asked for quite some considerable spending, even in these hard times when we're trying to hold government spending down, is one in which the training will take place with local officials, government officials, and private business at the local communities, training people for the jobs that are available in that community and that area, rather than just some general from-Washington-ordered job-training program that ignores what might be the particular needs in any community.

I could suggest one thing for all of you, if you want a little encouragement. Next Sunday -- because it's the Sunday paper that has all the help wanted ads in the classified ads section -- take a look at the help wanted ads, because what you'll learn from those, in all this time of great unemployment, you say, ``Well, how can there be this many employers?'' There'll be page after page of them advertising for employees. It isn't that the unemployed aren't looking for work and ready to take a job if they can get it. It's that this reflects the new type of jobs, the new technology that I was just mentioning a moment ago, in which they're advertising for people and there aren't enough people trained in those occupations yet to fill those jobs.

So, we are working, and we've had a task force working for a year, called the Private Initiatives Task Force. And they have been working with the private sector and with other levels of government, local and so forth, throughout the country on what can be done to meet some of the problems, utilizing the power of the private sector. And the response is wonderful and is amazing.

Education

Q. Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Kurt Hirsch from Walt Whitman High School. And it's good to see you here today honoring the excellence of public education. I want to ask you about the impression that people have that your administration has done more to tear apart the public school system through such programs as tuition tax credits, demolishing the Department of Education, and cutbacks in Federal funding for education. Could you comment on those, please?

The President. Well, in the first place, there haven't been cutbacks in funding for public education. This year it will be a total spent on education is $116.9 billion, and that's 7 percent more than last year. And that's double what was spent just 10 years ago on education.

Now, my belief in the tuition tax credit is a belief in competition. And we know that there are -- and particularly in the inner cities -- there are many parochial schools, independent schools. And the parents of children who are going to those schools and paying tuition are also paying their full share of taxes to support the public schools. Now, some of them may want their children to go to one of these schools because of the religious connotation, whatever it might be. But I feel that it's only fair that these people be given some break for the fact that they're supporting two school systems. Granted, they're supporting one by choice and the other they're compelled to. But, as long as we're compelling them to, then this break of tuition tax credits would not only serve to help the parents who are sending their children to these schools --

And incidentally, those parents are not all loaded. As a matter of fact, in the inner-city schools, the parochial schools, the actual financial level, the average level of the families of those students is lower than the average level of those attending public schools.

And it isn't going to hurt the public schools. There's nothing going to be torn away from them. They're getting still that same full amount of tax money. And you have to ask yourself -- part of this help will also go to the schools. Some of these independent schools can afford then, with tuition tax credits, to raise the tuition without penalizing the parents, because it will, in effect, come out of what would have otherwise been tax dollars. And they will -- there has been a great attrition rate. Many of those schools are closing. And in this respect they will be able to stay open.

Now, ask yourself: What would the burden be on the public sector and the public schools if suddenly all of the students who were attending those other schools were dumped on the public school market?

So, I know that there's been a lot of information and everyone keeps talking budget cuts, because we're trying to reduce the rate of increase in Federal spending. But today there has been no such thing as a budget cut. The government is spending more today than it has ever spent in its history. We're trying to reduce the rate of increase in spending, which was 17 percent when we came here. We have it down to about half of that now. And we're trying to get it down to where the taxpayers can keep up with it.

That's why we have the deficits. We're increasing spending faster than the rate of increase in government's revenues.

Mr. Brenner. [Glenn Brenner, sportscaster for WDVM-TV and master of ceremonies.] Mr. President, this'll have to be the last question.

The President.Oh, dear. I'm sorry.

School Prayer

Q. My name is Therese Stoal, and I'm from Langley High School. Mr. President, bearing in mind our history and foundation in the separation of church and state, how can you advocate school prayer?

The President. I advocate this on a voluntary basis. No student would be compelled to join in this. Suppose you had a moment of silent meditation in which you could do whatever your nature informs you to do. But there has been a tendency in recent years to indicate that the Constitution in the separation of church and state -- that this really meant separation from religion. The Constitution says that the Congress should make no laws that interfere with the practice of religion.

Now, what my feeling has been is that by ruling that this was outright not permitted in schools, we have in effect diminished the importance of religion and thus of morality in the minds of students and of people and of young people growing up by saying, ``Well, we just won't allow it in the schools.'' And, as I say, it's not a compulsory prayer. It wouldn't be one particular church's prayer. In fact, for those who didn't want to pray, it wouldn't even be a prayer. They could just take the minute and think about what they were going to do when the minute was over or whatever -- [laughter] -- they wanted to think about or what they did last night.

But a moment of silent meditation, I think, is in keeping with a country that has on its coins ``In God We Trust,'' that has a chaplain for the Congress, when the Congress meets. I know there was one young person with his parents who was up in the gallery one day at the Congress and asked who the chaplain was. And his father said, ``Well, that's the chaplain. He prays.'' And his child said, ``For the Congress?'' And he said, ``No; for the country.'' [Laughter]

But I don't know. I just feel very strongly. I don't know of anyone that was ever hurt by it. And I do believe that, if you look back -- speaking again of history -- if you look back to the collapse of great civilizations like the Greek and the Roman and all, you'll find that one of the characteristics of those civilizations was they began to desert and abandon their gods. That was one of the first signs of decline. And I think we have to keep in mind we are a nation under God. And if we ever forget that, we'll be just a nation under. [Applause] Thank you. Thank you all very much.

I just -- again, remember this. There's a responsibility that goes with where you are today. You're leaders. And if sometimes you get a little worried and the world looks big and awesome out there and you think, ``How do I know I can ever make it.'' Let me just tell you something. You've made it so far. You've made it in the company of all your peers and all your generation. And you've been the leaders. What makes you think you won't continue to be leaders if you keep on doing the same things that you've been doing in school? And your responsibility is: Our nation needs leaders, and we're counting on you.

God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 12:36 p.m. on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. He was introduced by Mrs. George Bush.

The event was one of several around the country sponsored by General Motors and a local television station to honor students with high academic standing.