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William H. Gates Sr. - A Forum on Education in America

November 11, 2008

Prepared Remarks by William H. Gates Sr., Co-chair

Thank you.

On behalf of the foundation, I want to thank you all for being here today. We believe you can help us do better work, and we are grateful that you would take the time to do so--even on Veterans’ Day.

I hope you agree with me that working together to advance the cause of education is a pretty good way to observe the holiday. Our country is at its best when all people have the opportunity to make the most of their talents.

Public schools epitomize the special genius of the ideals on which this nation was founded. They are proof that the United States was, as Abraham Lincoln said, conceived in liberty. Open inquiry is indispensible to our concept of citizenship. And so it makes perfect sense that the belief that a free, high-quality education is a right for every single child is an American invention.

It is enshrined in the first state constitutions that were ratified after Independence. And today, in this state and in many others across the country, a citizen can sue state government for failing to live up to what is a “paramount duty” to provide education to all within its borders.

The ideals that led to the invention of public schools have been reaffirmed repeatedly throughout our history. I can think of no more inspiring example than Brown v. the Board of Education. Chief Justice Earl Warren restated the case very clearly: “It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

But you know better than I do that the reality is less triumphant than the theory. Educational opportunities are not yet made available to all, despite more than two centuries of striving. I would submit that we deserve high marks for our principles, but not for our performance.

I still think often of the famous quotation from the 1983 report, Nation at Risk: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Indeed, it has been 25 years since Nation at Risk came out, and our schools are still in crisis. Our ideals have not changed. Our laws have not changed. The wisdom contained in that report and in a mountain of education research has not changed. Still, as a country, we do not at this moment have the public will to act on our ideals, our laws, and our wisdom.

Some people make the argument that education is an economic issue. Our students need to compete with students from other countries. And that’s all right with me. If we have to make that argument to get the public funds we need to rebuild our schools, we should do it. But to me, education is more fundamental than a question of American competitiveness or security. It is based on our shared social responsibility to make sure that every young person has an equal opportunity to be successful in life. That, in my mind, ought to be enough for us to make the changes our present conditions require.

The young people languishing in failing schools are human beings. They are human beings who have infinite worth in their own right without any reference to us. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and help them.

Thank you again.

To get us started today and to frame the day’s discussion, it’s my pleasure to introduce Allan Golston, the president of the foundation’s U.S. Program.

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