Radio Address to the Nation on Education

June 25, 1983

My fellow Americans:

Ever since our Commission on Excellence in Education came forth with its findings, you, the taxpaying citizens of this country, have been treated to a noisy debate about what to do.

First, the Commission report made the point that on the average, educational quality had deteriorated in recent years. Now, make sure you remember that term ``on the average.'' Admittedly, there are schools, school districts, and even some parts of individual schools that have managed to maintain a high level of quality.

Then, the Commission pointed out a number of remedies which, if employed, would bring the average level up to the standard our children are entitled to. Many of the remedies would call for no increase in spending; some, admittedly, would shift funding from less important things to things of greater educational value, and here and there, there might be a need for more money. Basically, however, the Commission's thrust was one of making better use of resources we already have.

All of what I've just pointed out was lost, however, in an explosion of voices. There were special interest voices that saw a chance to get more money for their particular cause. There were political voices that saw a campaign horse to ride. And there was demagoguery to help raise the noise level.

In making the report public and discussing the matter of education costs, I was accused of being ``grotesquely inaccurate and outrageous.'' This seems to have been prompted by a statement that more was being spent on education than on national defense.

I can only explain their hysteria by assuming that they were comparing Federal spending on education to Federal spending on defense. That, of course, is ridiculous. The Federal Government bears overwhelming responsibility for national defense, but it provides less than 10 percent of all education costs, which are and always have been a responsibility of the State and local governments.

Since this hassle won't die down in 15 minutes, I thought you might like some real figures from the U.S. Department of Education. In the '82 - '83 school year, government at all levels spent $215.3 billion on education. The 1983 defense spending is $214.8 billion. Actually, that $215 billion for education doesn't include Department of Defense spending for remedial education or private corporation spending on employee education, all of which is estimated to be about $30 billion or more. Nor does it include what parents spend on books, etc.

One of the noisemakers wants the Federal Government to add $11 billion to Federal education spending. Another demands $14 billion. And most of them accuse us of whacking the budget down to a starvation level.

The facts are, the Federal budget for education in 1980 was $14.1 billion. In 1981, which was still not our budget, it was $14.8. Our first appropriation, the one for 1982, held the level for education at $14.8 billion, the same as in 1981. This year we'll spend about $15.3 billion.

Now, these are a lot of figures to absorb when you can only hear them and not see them. Let me see if I can simplify things. The cost per pupil has nearly doubled, up 183.2 percent in 10 years. In the same 10 years, the number of pupils has dropped by 14 percent.

Some distinguished Members of Congress -- I'll be kind and not name them -- took me on for pointing out that the decline in educational quality seems to have begun shortly after the Federal Government started providing that less than 10 percent of the funding. What I had in mind was that the Federal Government began regulating and kibitzing a lot more than 10 percent, and maybe that contributed to the decline.

Now hang on, I have to resort to some numbers again. The Federal funding boom began in 1960. The teacher-pupil ratio went from one teacher to 26 pupils, then to one teacher to 19 pupils in 1980. But the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of college-bound high school graduates dropped in that same period from 975 to 890. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but at least it raises a question as to whether more money is the -- well, dare I use the term? -- ``quick fix'' for poor quality education.

Already a great many educators and school boards and Governors and State legislators who've read the Commission's report are enthusiastically moving to implement it.

The Commission urged that we return to basics as requirements for a high school diploma: 4 years of required English; increase the number of years of required mathematics and science; eliminate some of the frill, the ``snap'' courses so tempting to students when there are few, if any, compulsory courses; make history a required course, and the same for languages for the college-bound; require more homework. These were a few of the Commission's recommendations.

Yes, they talked of something that could translate into more money -- better pay for better teachers to attract the brightest and the best to choose teaching as a career. Do what is done in every other profession and business -- offer merit pay raises for those who earn and deserve them.

The Commission gave us a course to follow. It leads to better education for our sons and daughters. Let's ignore the noisemakers and set sail.

Thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.