TOPICS > Politics

President Clinton on Truancy

July 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want you to understand that if, if the budget process this year works out like it did last year–I hope it won’t–I’m working hard with the Congress, but I am not going to tolerate an assault on the fundamental structure of educational opportunity and educational excellence in this country. (applause)

It is wrong. (applause)

It is wrong. (applause)

We have to do more to help you to make schools safe and going to and from school safe. We have worked hard but still no teacher should ever fear when he or she is in the classroom or going to and from school. No student should be so afraid, no student should be so afraid that they cannot learn, and we worked very hard to preserve funding for the Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, to enforce our zero tolerance for guns in the schools policy, and we will continue to work to help schools deal with the problems that they face every day, that teachers face every day, and to try to find opportunities to bring people together. Last year, I had the opportunity to work with the Secretary of Education and the Justice Department on a set of guidelines to schools to deal with the complex questions that often arise when children seek to practice or at least express their religious convictions. We didn’t want to turn our schools into religion-free zones and we didn’t want to violate the 1st Amendment. Because of the work that Sec. Riley and the attorney general did, we have heard from schools all over America saying this is not an issue anymore, we have resolved this, we thank you very much. And I hope it has helped you in your school. I want to propose today one other thing that I think is quite important, that I have cared a lot about for a long time. One of the most important things we can do to promote learning and to keep our children safe is the most obvious old fashioned thing that I dealt with when I was in school, myself, back in the dark ages. (laughter in audience)

And that is to insist that children be in school and not on the streets. (applause and cheers)

Truancy–truancy is a warning signal that a child is in trouble and is often a gateway to crime. The difference between success and failure in life for our children is whether they’re learning on the streets or in the school where they belong. The street is not an acceptable alternative to the classroom. (applause)

When I was governor, we actually passed a bill which made it possible for local communities to find parents if they refused to show up at parent-teacher conferences or permitted their children to be chronically absent. I know the NEA has called for federal action to crack down on truancy. So I want to tell you about two things that we’re doing in response to the call that you issued. First, earlier today, I directed the Department of Education to send this manual–I don’t know if you can see it–it says, “Manual to Combat Truancy”–to every school district in America. It shows that when parents are held accountable and when communities come together, you can do something about this problem. Yesterday Sec. Riley announced that he would give a total of $10 million to 25 school districts to help them keep their children in school. This is a beginning, but I want you to know because of what you and others in education have said to me all across the country, this will become a national priority, and we will keep at it with you until we turn this issue around. And I thank you for that. (applause) Now, what I want you to think about as I leave–we’ve had a great time today and I loved all the cheering and the shouting and it made chills run up and down my spine and kind of got me in the humor for the next three or four months and do what we have to do–and I thank for that

(cheering in audience).

But–(cheering and applause)–but this is what we used to call back home preaching to the saved.

(laughter in audience)

And there’s something to be said for that, but it’s not enough. We are being given an historic responsibility now–you and I–to pick which bridge we’re going to walk into the 21st century, and that will determine what this country will be like when our children and grandchildren reach our age. So what I want to ask you to do is to go beyond preaching to the saved. I want to ask you to walk out of this hall determined with all your other responsibilities and all your other pressures and all the challenges of the classroom and the schoolhouse, to spend whatever time you can between now and November talking to your family, your friends, people who don’t work with you every day, people who don’t have the same insight you may have into what goes on here, about these big questions, because I believe with all my heart if the American people are given back this choice, if they get to look at the big things, not the divisive, distracted, destructive, puny elements that too often dominate our politics, the American people will do what they’ve been doing for over 200 years, they will make the right decision, and your children and your grandchildren will be the richer for it. Thank you and God bless you all. (applause)