October 5, 1987

Thank you all very much. Please be seated. We've decided it's a beautiful day. [Laughter] Well, I thank you all, and welcome to the White House. It's been a while since I was in school, but for a former pupil, looking out at so many principals, I can tell you it's a lot less scary knowing that I invited the principal to my office, not the other way around.

Well, it's an honor to have all of you here today as we recognize America's outstanding public and private secondary schools with the Department of Education's most prestigious award. You've all done a remarkable job, and I'm particularly delighted to mention that four of the schools being honored today are repeat winners in the Secondary School Recognition Program.

I can't help it, but I'm reminded of the story of a student who was misbehaving and was told by his teacher to go to the principal's office. The student protested that the teacher was making a terrible mistake and would get in big trouble. He said, ``The last time I was sent to the principal, he told me, `I don't want to ever see you in here again.''' [Laughter]

Well, I'd like to see each one of you come back here again and again. You're here because your schools are part of what's right with American education. Not too long ago, although we put more money into our schools each year, much of the news we got back was bad. Graduation rates, test scores declined while violence, pregnancy, and drug abuse increased. In a real sense we were failing our children. But today I'm happy to report that across the country the situation is being turned around. Excellence is on the rise in our schools, and drugs are on their way out. Schools like yours are showing the country how to achieve excellence by setting high standards, maintaining discipline, and emphasizing the basics. What you accomplished wasn't bought with Federal dollars or engineered from Washington. The credit belongs to administrators who provided leadership, parents who got involved, teachers who inspired, and students who studied.

One way of helping all our schools is by bringing more accountability into the educational system. That means merit pay to reward our best teachers, competency testing to maintain a high quality of instruction, achievement testing to measure the performance of schools and students, greater parental choice in determining their children's education, and programs like this that recognize the best schools in America. A Gallup Poll released last month found that the American people are solidly behind the goals of the education reform movement. Three out of four adults want our schools to focus on the fundamentals like math, English, history, and science, and to raise their academic requirements.

The majority of Americans also want to see our schools once again building character, and I agree with them. A critical part of the rebirth of American education and getting back to basics is having our schools again teach old-fashioned ideas like right and wrong. Teaching traditional values does not trap our children into the past. These values are a bedrock from which young people will be able to launch themselves into the future, feeling secure in a world of change because they've been taught truths which never change: honor, justice, loyalty, and courage.

As you all know, this is the 200th anniversary of the signing of our Constitution. Another way of looking at it is that this is also the 200th anniversary of our schools teaching the Constitution. And that is a vital responsibility, and one your schools take seriously and do well. In the words of Henry Clay: ``The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity -- unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.''

The original Constitution is preserved here in Washington in the National Archives, as you know. And the ink of the parchment has faded from time and exposure, but the strength of its message has not faded from the day it was signed. And what gives the document its power and its permanence is that its words are taught and spoken in every classroom in America. As John Marshall said: ``The people made the Constitution. It lives only by their will.'' Well, let's make sure that it lives forever. As I see it, our schools shape America's future one student at a time. So, the men who wrote our Constitution -- well, they're counting on you.

Under our system, it's not the Federal Government that runs the schools, but the men and women who come out of our local schools -- they run the government. When I read the writings of our Founding Fathers, who designed our system, I always note how openly they gave praise to God and sought His guidance. And I just can't believe that it was ever their intention to expel Him from our schools. [Applause] I could stop right there and be happy. [Laughter] When we explain to our students for the first time the marvel of the semiconductors or share with them any of God's wonders or the fact that they live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world, don't you think they may want to utter words of prayer, and shouldn't we let them?

I must say before I go on, someone has once said that, actually, as long as there are final exams there will be prayer in schools. [Laughter] In the beginning, I was joking about being called to the principal's office, but the truth is I have a warm spot in my heart for principals. I was in the principal's office once in Dixon High School. And I wasn't there just to pass the time of day. At one point, he said to me, ``You know, I don't care what you think of me now. I'm only interested in what you'll think of me 15 years from now.'' Well, I didn't have to wait 15 years to appreciate him and let him know what he'd meant to me. In fact, he was a remarkable friend. We kept in close contact until his death. And what you've accomplished, to be here today -- from what your students have achieved, I don't think your students will have to wait 15 years either to let you know what you've done for them.

And now I know you have other things to do, so do I. [Laughter] But, thank you all, and God bless you all. Thank you. The Secretary of Education has just told me I can say "class dismissed.'' [Laughter] All right, thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:34 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House to officials representing the 271 schools that were recognized for their achievements. In his closing remarks, he referred to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.