This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
THE CRISIS IN AMERICAN EDUCATION
No problem has grown to greater proportions in the past several years than that of our educational system. And no problem touches all of our lives more directly. Our competition with the Soviets depends in part on the science training in our high schools. Our stature abroad - the legend of the “Ugly American” - is affected by how many language teachers are available in the lower grades. The wisdom of our legislators - holding in their hands the power of war or peace, of death and taxes - is dependent upon the wisdom and the education of Americans in every remote corner and village of the nation.
American education today is in a crisis - and the sorry prospects are that, without prompt Federal action, that crisis will only grow worse. During this past school year, 50,000 teachers were on the job who had no adequate preparation or training for that job. Yet still another 50,000 teachers were desperately needed, to relieve overcrowded classrooms, to enable children to go to school full-time, or to teach the essential courses which simply were not being covered.
But how could we get more teachers, when salaries were so low and classrooms so crowded, while less rigorous industries offered higher pay. And even if we had 100,000 more teachers, where would we have put them? We are, as a nation, more than 135,000 classrooms short and the shortage is only growing worse. Local school boards listen to urgent appeals from scientists, admirals and orators about improving the quality of our education, giving more time to gifted students and instituting more specialized courses at all levels. But they see children struggling to get any attention at all in an overcrowded or make-shift classroom, with underpaid, overworked and too often untrained teachers, and frequently going to school only on a half-day shift basis.
These conditions can only worsen if help does not come soon. In four years 4 ½ million more children will be clamoring for admission to our schools. By 1969 high school enrollment will be up 50 to 70 per cent. And shortly thereafter, the wave of youngsters that followed World War II will hit our colleges - only to find a shortage of classrooms, a shortage of faculty members and a shortage of living quarters.
“There is a time,” James Truslow Adams once wrote, “for quantity and there is a time for quality.” But American education today is desperately in need of both. Our schools and our colleges at every level need a quantity of teachers, a quantity of buildings and a quantity of money. And they need better quality teachers and better quality curricula - which also requires money.
But despite all our luxuries, all our prosperity, all our gadgets and conveniences and progress, we are devoting less than one out of every thirty dollars to our educational system. West Virginia - with its traditional pride in education - has been devoting 33.1 per cent of its general expenditures to education - 5th highest in the nation. But despite these marvelous efforts State and local governments, without adequate tax sources, with growing debts in other fields, cannot keep up with these fast-rising construction demands. And the Federal Government has failed to its share.
The Federal Government did well by education in the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1785. It officially established a federal policy designed to encourage education by making one square mile of public land out of every 36 available “for the maintenance of public schools.” It did well again in the Land Grant College Act of 1865. There the encouragement took the tangible form of a grant of land to state colleges. But it has not done so well in the deepening education crisis of 1960.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” This is still a basic truth.
We need programs of student aid, loans, fellowships and scholarships - and not limited only to the fields of science and defense. We must start building now the classrooms and dormitories our colleges already need - building programs which the President halted by virtue of his two Housing Bill vetoes. We need research grants for teachers and others outside the health and science fields. We need to find ways of meeting our colleges’ growing shortage of available capital.
It is true that the responsibility for education is a local responsibility - but the problem is a national problem. And the Federal Government must do its share. I recently supported - in the Senate- - a successful effort to pass legislation providing badly needed Federal aid for school construction and for teachers’ salaries - a bill which will bring better schools and better educational opportunities to all the citizens of West Virginia and of the entire nation.
Yet this vital bill faces the prospect of an Administration veto - an Administration rejection of this great program for the near future. I urge the Administration not to veto this bill. It must not veto this bill. For only by returning Federal tax dollars to the States can we ensure a decent education for all our youth.
The issue is not one of Federal control of education. No one is in favor of that. Traditionally local jurisdiction and academic freedom must be scrupulously maintained.
The issue is national survival. The Chairman of the Soviet Academy of Science has promised “great efforts … to beat the United States on all scientific fronts.” Premier Bulganin told the Communist Party Congress that the more than 2,000 skilled technicians they have sent to underdeveloped countries are the real “gold reserve” of Russia. The Soviets have spent at least 2 ½ times as much of their national income on education - and within a few years, it is estimated, they will have three times as many scientists and engineers.
But it is not merely a matter of competing with the Russians. Civilization, according to the old saying, “is a race between education and catastrophe.” Today, it is up to our government - but basically up to you, the voters - to determine the winner of this race.