Message From Richard Riley

U.S. Secretary of Education

Quality Education Under Assault

We must focus on the important task at hand- helping
our nation's schools educate young Americans.

The federal role in education has been the subject of serious debate lately. Critics have questioned why the U.S. Department of Education is necessary, and in the past few months both houses of Congress have considered legislation to eliminate the agency or merge it into other departments. Thankfully, those measures were abandoned. But now crucial Education Department initiatives focused on improving the quality of education across America are at risk.

In a break with long-standing bipartisan support for education, the proposals now being considered by Congress would gut critical education services and support for this nation's schools. The U.S. House of Representatives voted in August to cut $3.9 billion from federal education spending for fiscal 1996. Such a measure would drastically reduce the level of federal investment in education-cutting help for our poorest schoolchildren, and hurting college students and their families as they struggle to pay tuition.

The impact of these cuts would be grave. By a slim majority, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate all funding for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which is now assisting schools in 47 states to raise standards of discipline and achievement. In addition, the House would slash more than $1.1 billion for improvement of basic skills in the nation's poorest schools, and cut nearly 60 percent of funds geared toward creating safe and drug-free learning environments. And the list goes on. Not one major education program is spared significant reductions in funds.

Such unprecedented cuts in federal education assistance represent the beginning of the greatest long-term reduction in federal support for education in our nation's history, and they couldn't have come at a worse time. Projections indicate that high school classrooms will have a 15-percent increase in students over the next seven years. That means an already overcrowded high school of 1,000 students will get 150 more. This is a tidal wave of teenagers who, if the House has its way, won't get the basic skills they need, the high standards and disciplined learning environment they deserve, and the opportunity to go to college.

Further, cutting education is not the right way to go to balance the budget. Instead of taking crucial education dollars out of the hands of states and local communities, President Clinton's budget proposal balances the budget, while investing $40 billion more in education and training over the same seven-year period. In addition to investing wisely in education, this administration has focused-since the day we took office-on streamlining the agency to save money. As a result, our department now does much more with less than during any other previous administration.

Our staff of about 5,000 is one-third smaller today than the staff of 7,700 employees at the U.S. Office of Education in the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare. We administer more dollars per employee and are smaller than any other Cabinet agency. Administrative costs account for only 2 percent of our budget, much of which goes to accountability and quality control. The Education Department delivers 98 cents of every dollar to states, school districts, postsecondary institutions and individuals. And we are working to cut red tape by reviewing every regulation to see if it is necessary. So far, one-third of the department's regulations have been eliminated.

Years of bipartisan support for education have resulted in considerable enthusiasm and energy today in many communities and schools across the country that are trying to improve education. President Clinton's initiatives such as Goals 2000 and the school-to-work plan are helping these local efforts expand. Now is not the time to turn back. We must focus on the important task at hand-helping our nation's schools educate young Americans to navigate these changing times.

Public education in this country surely should be more demanding, and it is still not where it should be to educate all of our young people for the future. But it is not flunking out by a long shot, even though public education is at ground zero of almost every social, economic and cultural tension of our times. In some communities I have visited, the local public school remains the best and only anchor for young people who are trying to pull themselves up.

We live in difficult and insecure times, and many Americans are concerned about their children's education. However, despite what a vocal minority would have us believe, the vast majority of the American people recognize the value of education and the role my department can play in making it better.

Every poll I have seen this year shows that large majorities of Americans-ranging from two-thirds to more than 80 percent-believe that continued support for the Department of Education and its programs is important. And President Clinton has demonstrated that balancing the budget is possible without sacrificing education.

In an era when this nation faces an education deficit that is as great a long-term threat as the current budget deficit, investing in education now is the only way I know to ensure our future prosperity. Gutting Education Department programs now would only set back efforts to improve education in our country.