Keynote Address -- National Coalition for Essential Schools
Marriott Wardman Park, Washington, DC, Thursday, November 14, 2002
I would like to thank you for this opportunity to speak to the Coalition of Essential Schools tonight.
When I was invited to speak, I had intended to talk only about education. But given last week's election results, it's clear that I need to talk about much more than that one topic.
Last week the American people sent the Democratic party a powerful message: It is no longer enough for us as Democrats to blur the distinctions between our party and the Republicans. We need to offer a clear choice, an agenda that is our own. It's time for our party to once again stand for ideas that touch every American.
Our world changed dramatically on September 11th. Never in history has our country had to endure what we did on that terrible day. But together we faced that challenge -- and grew stronger as a result. We came together as Americans, united as a country in support of our Commander in Chief.
It was important at that time that all of us -- Democrat, Republican and Independent -- stand with the President as America was under attack. But it is also important to recognize today that loyalty to our country should not silence debate on the critical fronts where Democrats have long fought -- affordable health care, decent job opportunities, a livable wage, a clean environment, healthy children, and strong schools.
The President's domestic policies, and even his approach to foreign policy, are damaging to the long-term prospects for America's success. Democrats cannot put public opinion polls ahead of principled opposition to fundamentally bad policies. And we should never substitute public opinion polls for the principles and ideals of the Democratic Party.
We see this again and again. On health care, we argue about the Patients Bill of Rights when we should be pushing for health care for all Americans. On economic development, we talk about tax reform but then Democrats support tax cuts which do little to help middle class families afford college tuition and decent health care, when we should be moving away from subsidizing corporate America, and completely revamping American economic development policy to help small businesses grow.
Democrats have supported the President's trade agenda without standing up for labor and environmental standards, which are so critical to the future of our country and the developing nations of the world. Democrats have supported a unilateralist approach to defending our nation which alienate sour allies, when we should stand for cooperation with our allies and friends to build a true global coalition against terror and despotism.
We have been silent when we should demand a far-reaching renewable energy policy, both to rescue our environment and to build a more sensible foreign policy.
Campaigns are about winning, but they are also about changing America. It is impossible for our party to change this nation if we convey the impression that we are little more than a pale shadow of the Republican Party.
We can do better.
Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said that all politics is local. But in the 21st Century, politics has become personal.
My wife and I are the parents of two children who have thrived in the public schools. Our kids have worked hard academically, have played sports, and have built solid friendships. In fact, I may be the only presidential candidate in the nation who drove the hockey and soccer team car pools every week! Education is important to families like ours.
Our state ranks sixth in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAPE), and we have had a high measure of accountability in our schools since 1997.
We have equalized school funding in our state so every child has the same amount of resources behind them no matter where they live. And we have the highest percentage of mainstreamed special education students -- over 80 percent -- of any state in the U.S.
I was initially pleased when the Bush Administration turned its focus to education and Vermont was so far ahead of Washington on this front. But what came next has become symbolic of federal governance: Washington has imposed a one-size-fits-all educational mandate on our states, our communities, our school districts, and our schools.
In fact, states like Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire -- with high academic standards -- are being forced to pay for expensive federal mandates by either cutting programs such as art, music and sports, or simply passing along additional costs to our already beleaguered property taxpayers.
In the 21st Century, when all politics is personal, we shouldn't be offering so-called solutions that do little except drive up property taxes in every state in the nation.
We should set high educational standards, and there is nothing wrong with setting them at the federal level. After all, 9 X 9 = 81 in Montana, just as does in Alabama. But we need to take the Vermont approach rather than the Washington approach. The President's bill is aimed at the small percentage of schools which continue to fail, and thus it over-regulates, under-funds, and ultimately harms communities and their children who want to succeed.
That's what Washington too often does.
In Vermont, we expect high standards and we publish the results. But we avoid over-reliance on standardized testing, and we assume that parents, teachers and administrators want to improve their schools. We work with them in a supportive way to do so, with technical assistance and money.
The single most important potential improvement in American education is exactly what the federal government has refused to do, which is to fully fund special education so that every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential. But unfunded mandates are forcing local school boards to choose between special education programs, after-school programs, and other programs that help children reach their full potential. And that's just plain wrong.
Education has always been the great equalizer in America and has been the driver of economic opportunity. Excellence in education, which all of you here stand for, is critical. But smaller class size, greater flexibility, and opportunity for all will never be achieved with the philosophy that local school boards can't run their school systems.
Our policy on improving education ought to respect community desire for excellence. One size does not fit all.
We can do better.
As a party we need to look outside the beltway. We must set a tax policy that is good for working Americans, not just the Ken Lays of the world. And we must not be afraid to stand up for such a policy.
We must vigorously condemn and fight hard against the borrow and spend fiscal policies which are frankly modeled after those of Argentina. No Republican president has balanced the federal budget in 33 years. We can do better.
We must create an economic development strategy which focuses on small businesses and is no longer responsive only to the wealthiest donors of both parties on issues like expensing stock options, changes in accounting standards, pension reform, and corporate responsibility.
We are a party who must embrace small businesses and help them -- first by making health insurance available to their owners and employees, and secondly by changing our tax code to remove benefits for large corporations, and creating wealth and opportunity for those who create the most jobs, our small business community.
We should repeal the President's tax cut, which primarily benefits Americans making over $300,000 a year, and replace it with targeted cuts that will make real difference in the lives of average Americans.
We should use a limited estate tax exemption to protect small businesses and family farms, cut payroll taxes for low- and middle-income workers, and use direct subsidies rather than tax credits to make it possible for working people earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year to save money in their IRA's, as the president's tax code did for people earning ten times that.
These targeted cuts would not only be fiscally responsible, but help those who truly need help.
This is the Democratic way. We can do better.
I am a physician, and until I became Governor of Vermont in 1991, I shared a medical practice in Burlington with my wife. In our office, we have not only treated the physical pains and illnesses of children and their parents, but helped them work out everything from complicated insurance forms, to covering their bills, to affording their medications.
I speak from experience when I say that we need more than a patient's bill of rights. The Democratic Party needs to stand up for an issue that Harry Truman insisted on in the 1948 Democratic Platform - health insurance for all Americans.
America is the last industrial nation on earth that does not guarantee that all its citizens have health insurance. That means that in our great country, children go without regular checkups, seniors really do have to chose between rent, food and prescription medication, and tens of millions of working Americans are one illness away bankruptcy.
As a doctor, I've seen first-hand the stress that families face when they can't afford coverage.
And as Governor, I had an opportunity to do something about it. And today, in my state, if you earn less than $52,000 a year and are a family of four, every child in that household up to age 18 is guaranteed health insurance for a very small fee. I want to repeat that: Every child up to age 18 is guaranteed health insurance.
Vermont can be a model. If we can assure that every child has access to health insurance in Vermont, a small rural state which is 26th in income in the country, surely the most wealthy and powerful society on the face of the earth can do the same.
The solution is simple, and in Vermont it has worked. I want to expand Medicaid to cover all those under 23; add a sensible yet fiscally responsible prescription benefit to Medicare; and create subsidies for small businesses with less than 50 employees, for individuals who are self-employed, and for those who work for corporations that do not give health insurance.
Too many Democrats inside the beltway have been silenced in our fight for this most basic of American hopes. But the solution is straightforward and can easily be financed while we balance the budget simply by repealing the bulk of the President's tax cuts and substituting more limited, more targeted cuts of our own. We cannot have huge tax cuts and health insurance for all.
We must choose.
On September 11, 2001, it was important that all of us - Democrat, Republican and Independent - stand with the President as America was under attack.
We may well end up in a war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess atomic weapons. But a policy of unbridled unilateralism breeds suspicion at a time when we need the support of our allies around the world. And perhaps more importantly, this policy will makes it impossible to do the vital work essential to America's long-term defense; we must modernize the Muslim world so it will ultimately enjoy the same democratic freedoms that Americans do.
But in the long run, our best defense policy is not simply to train brave soldiers who are well equipped. A strong defense means creating the conditions under which young Americans need not give their lives abroad. That means building nations using both economic and political power, to achieve a society with middle class values that respects the rights of all its citizens -- and empowers women to fully participate in economic and political decision making.
Democratic nations do not go to war with each other, and they will not harbor groups like Al Qaeda.
Let me close by coming back to education.
I was fortunate enough to serve in my first year as Governor on the National Education Goals Panel. The very first goal was one we have never met as a nation, and that failure makes the other goals irrelevant and impossible to achieve.
That first goal was that every child arrive at school ready to learn.
In our state, we visit 91 percent of all newborns within two weeks of their birth, whether they come from the richest or poorest families in Vermont. For that small percent of families in serious trouble, we help them develop parenting skills, train them for jobs, and supply child care and health insurance.
Our child abuse rate has dropped by 43 percent in the last ten years; our foster care rate for children under 12 is down significantly, and child sexual abuse has dropped by 70 percent.
We have dramatically increased the number of our children who arrive at school ready to learn, and our reading scores prove it. And soon we will dramatically decrease the number of our kids who end up in prison.
This is a defining difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party: Our dedication to small children and their families. Yet too many Democratic voices in Congress have been stilled because our party has too often chosen accommodation instead of standing up for what we believe.
We can do better.
We can bring hope and opportunity to all Americans, not simply those who already have advantages, but to those who are working so hard to get them.
We are a party that must support and defend our nation with the strongest possible defense, in the long term as well as the short term.
We are a party that must stand for balanced budgets once again.
We are a party that must continue to embrace our historic goals of health insurance for all Americans, and support of small children and their families.
We are a party that must never back away from the long tradition of supporting education so that every American will have the ability to succeed in this society.
Democrats must not forget that we stand for hope and opportunity for middle class Americans who are struggling to send their children to college, and for hope and opportunity for those engaged in the difficult struggle to join America's shrinking middle class. We cannot support the infrastructure for better education, better health care and help for America's small businesses while we are cutting taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans.
Democrats need to tell the truth:
We must choose between the President's tax cuts and helping kids get a college education.
We must choose between the President's tax cuts and funding adequate health care.
We must choose between the President's tax cuts and chronic deficits.
We must choose between the President's tax cuts and giving small businesses a better chance of success.
We need a Democratic Party that in the face of the rising gap between the wealthy and ordinary working people will stand up for a livable wage, for a trade policy which saves American jobs, and for a society in which people who work hard and play by the rules are able to live a lifestyle where their children have hope of advancement....
So that we, as a nation, can say once again, that no American shall be left behind.