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Remarks As Prepared For Delivery By Vice President Al Gore
NALEO 16th Annual Conference

Saturday, June 19, 1999

It is an honor to stand with so many remarkable Latino leaders—women and men who are leading this nation not just toward a new century, but toward a new era of openness and opportunity for all Americans.

I applaud your record of achievement: more than 2,000 Latino elected officials trained. More than 5,000 Latinos elected. More than 90,000 people that you have helped to become legal residents of the United States of America.

Today, there are more Hispanic elected officials in America than any time in our history. Over the past four years, the number of Latinos registered to vote increased by 25 percent. And last November, Latino turnout was the highest in the history of our nation.

And you know well: if we want to build on those gains we must make sure every American is counted in the next Census. In 1990, we missed more than eight million people—and double-counted more than four million. Yet some still cling to the fantasy that we can count a nation of 260 million people with clipboards and pencils. Some of our opponents would probably look at this room and say that there were about 20 people here.

We must stand and fight for a fair and accurate Census. Every American counts—and every American must be counted. I salute your decision to focus on this issue at this year's conference. As with so many crucial battles, we are in this one together.

This is a time of great prosperity for much of our nation. Under President Clinton's leadership, we have turned our nation's economy around. Instead of the biggest deficits in history, we now have the biggest surpluses. Instead of quadrupling our national debt, we've seen the creation of almost 19 million new jobs. Instead of a deep recession and high unemployment, America now has our strongest economy in history. Latino homeownership and business ownership are at the highest levels in history. Latino poverty and unemployment are at their lowest levels in history. Our cities are coming back. Real wages are rising again.

Together, we must keep our prosperity going. And we must extend it to the unskilled and underprivileged, to Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, to our farms and inner cities, to our new immigrants, y en cada communidad.

But let us be honest: America will not remain first economically if we do not become first educationally.

We cannot break down the barriers of opportunity if the Latino drop-out rate remains an unacceptable 75 percent higher than that for blacks and whites—with barely half finishing high school, and far fewer going on to college.

We cannot help every child to learn and to dream in overcrowded classrooms, with teachers that are overburdened, and with textbooks that are out of date.

That is why I want to focus this afternoon on the all-important challenge of education.

We have made important progress in the past seven years: higher standards; tougher curricula; greater accountability; and local officials, like many of you, taking tough action to turn around their schools. I am especially proud that more Latinos are going to college than ever before.

But we must go further—much further—in the new century just beginning. For we face new challenges to our families, and our nation.

At a time when families are under more stress than ever before—with the average two-parent family working almost 500 more hours a year than they did a generation ago—we need schools that welcome parent involvement, and make it easier, not harder, to be a strong family.

At a time when our culture offers too many of the wrong lessons—a virtual crash course in violence and degradation—we need schools that help parents pass on the right values: good character. Strong discipline. Family and decency.

At a time when our economy is changing, with the information revolution transforming the nature of work, we need schools that prepare our children for the jobs of the future. To keep the best GDP, we need the best SATs.

And at a time when the generation of young people moving through our schools has just passed the Baby Boom as the largest in American history, we must seize this opportunity to shape a stronger future.

There are now over 10 million Latino children under the age of 18. Whether their names will be—Gonzalez, Ramirez, de la Garza, or Ricky Martin, this much we know for sure: in the 21st Century, the contributions our children make, the jobs they hold, and the lives they lead will depend in large part on the education they receive today. That has always been the great insight not only of the NALEO Educational Fund, but of the entire NALEO organization.

This is more than a policy priority for me. Like so many of you, I was raised in a loving family that taught me the value of education.

My father grew up in a place called Possum Hollow, Tennessee. When he was 18, he went to work as a teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse.

He had just three months of college—from Murfreesboro State Teachers College—but that was enough for his students to call him "Professor Gore." He went on to graduate from Teachers College and work his way through night law school. Education was so important to him that he drove two hours each night just to go to class.

I learned the power of education from my mother, too. She was born in a poor, rural part of West Tennessee—a poor girl when poor girls were not supposed to dream. She was determined to work her way through college. She took her blind sister Thelma with her, and took notes and read lessons for both of them. Then she got a loan from the Rotary Club and traveled to Nashville—where she enrolled in law school. She became one of the very first women ever to graduate from Vanderbilt Law School. She's 86 now; I talk to her every day. She still remembers every elementary and secondary school teacher that had an impact on her.

Tipper and I have tried to pass on those values to our four children. We have one child in law school, one in college, one in high school—and one daughter who just graduated from college last week.

Now, together, we must work to make our schools places of excellence, for all our children. We need truly revolutionary improvement in our schools. And today, I want to share some of my ideas for how we can achieve it.

I believe we must start by making high quality pre-school available to every child, in every family, throughout the entire United States. New research shows that the right kind of start—through quality pre-school—can lead to higher IQs, higher reading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates and greater success in the workplace. It's an investment we can't afford not to make.

We must improve teacher quality, and treat teachers like professionals. The new student boom means that we will hire 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade. If we set a national goal that every one of those teachers will be tested, trained, skilled in the newest technology, and willing to make teaching a career, we could dramatically improve our schools right away.

It is time for Congress to pass our plan to hire 100,000 new teachers, to reduce class sizes from 22 to 18 in the early grades. Then I believe we should reduce class sizes not just in the early grades, but in all grades.

We need a renewed focus on discipline, character, the right values, and safety—and we need more parental involvement in our schools. Columbine has served as a wake-up call for all of America—but school violence has been a problem in too many of our communities for too long.

Yesterday in Los Angeles, I talked about some of the steps we need to take to make our schools safer. I believe we should double our nation's commitment to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act over the next five years. To keep children out of harm's way in the afternoon hours when most juvenile crime takes place, we need to invest in quality after school care.

We should insist on a policy of zero tolerance toward guns in our schools. And while some are trying to pass new protections for gun manufacturers, to shield them from lawsuits, I believe we must pass new protections for families—to get the guns off our streets, our of our schools, and away from children and criminals. Two nights ago, Congress was wrong to reject a common-sense measure to require background checks for those who buy guns at gun shows. Every gun that is sold to a child or a criminal is one that could turn up at your child's school, or on the block where you live. We must work to close every last loophole on our lawbooks—so not a single child or criminal can buy a gun.

Of course, none of our efforts will work if parents do not take more responsibility. We need to teach children right from wrong—and why the right values transcend a moment's cheap sensation. This is a battle that must be fought one family at a time—and we must all change our lives to protect our children.

We need an aggressive plan to turn around every failing school in America. There are too many school districts in America where less than half the students graduate, and where those who do graduate aren't ready for college or good jobs. And that should be recognized for what it is: a national emergency. I believe every state and every school district should be required to identify failing schools, and work to turn them around—with strict accountability for results, and strong incentives for success.

Every child in America must have full opportunity—regardless of race, creed, or national origin. I was proud that last fall, we passed an initiative I announced to create the first-ever national Hispanic Education Action Plan—to help Latino students stay in school and succeed in school. We must reduce the Hispanic drop-out rate in America. And I will not rest until we do.

Finally, we must do more to help every family save for their children's college education, and to continue their own education throughout their lifetimes. We must make it easier for parents to save for college tuition tax-free and inflation-free. And we must expand lifelong learning, so that every adult who needs training or retraining can get it.

Many of you have been leading the way to renew education in your own communities. I applaud your efforts—and I want to work with you, to share the best approaches nationwide.

But we know that in the months ahead, there will be a pitched battle over the future of our schools.

Some will say we should just give up on our public schools—and drain away the dollars with vouchers. I say: we can't pass the buck when it comes to our public schools; we must fight to make them the best in the world.

Some will exploit the issue of bilingual education for political gain. I believe we must support bilingual education—for educational gain.

Some will say there should be no national role in improving our schools. I say: education is our number-one national priority. I know it's important to the Latino community: around 50 percent of Latino elected officials in America are school board members. Educational decisions must always be made at the local level, by all of you. But America needs leadership that will keep education at the top of our national agenda.

Let me close by telling you a story. Last month, I was in Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where I met a Latina woman named Sandra. Since she was a little girl, Sandra dreamed of being a teacher—but she didn't have the money to go to school. When she got married, her husband started to save a little money every month, to pay her tuition. But then she was diagnosed with lupus. All the money they had saved went to pay for hospital bills.

While she was in the hospital, she heard about the HOPE Scholarship tax cuts we created to help pay tuition. She applied, and she prayed—and her prayers were answered. She got help to go to school. She drove 30 miles each way for three years to take classes. With two kids at home, it wasn't easy. But today, her dream is finally coming true. A month ago, when the University of Texas at Brownsville graduated its class of 1999, Sandra was in one of the front rows. And in August, she starts work as a second grade teacher at a local elementary school.

When I asked Sandra what her experience meant to her, she didn't mention the financial help she got, or even her diploma. She said what mattered most was that "somebody. . . believed in me, believed in my dreams—and thought I could succeed."

The quality of our schools, the quality of the opportunities we provide, sends a powerful, unspoken message. If we send our children to classrooms that are overcrowded and in disrepair, with low standards and little chance of going to college, then we are saying to our children: you shouldn't care about your education. Because it's obvious that we don't.

But if we make our public schools the finest in the world, and make it possible for everyone to go to college, it sends a very different message: it says that in America, words like familia, communidad, opportunidad, and educacion are not just palabras—they are the values that guide our lives.

Let us work together to make our schools the best in the world. Let us create an America that is not just better off, but better—in every way.


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