American education today is in a crisis – and the harsh fact of the matter is that, without prompt federal action, that crisis will only grow worse. For no problem has grown to greater proportion in the past several years than that of our educational system. And no problem touches all of our lives more directly. Our success in competition with the Soviets depends in part on the science training in our 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 prosperity and taxes – is dependent upon the wisdom and the education of Americans in every remote corner and village of the nation.
Yet despite this pressing need, we have 135,000 less classrooms and 50,000 less teachers than are absolutely necessary to train today's youth. Our children are forced to study in overcrowded and obsolete facilities under ill-trained and ill-paid teachers. And in the sixties, as our population expands, the number of children seeking admission to schools will also grow, putting an even greater strain on our already overburdened school system.
The responsibility for education is a local responsibility – but the problem is a national problem. In recognition of this the Senate has passed a bill granting money to the states for badly needed school construction and for teachers' salaries. But this bill – this important and farsighted effort to meet the deepening crisis in American education – is threatened by a Presidential veto. I urge the President to sign it – to approve this great program – so that we may equip our children for the great struggle for progress, for prosperity and for national survival which lies ahead. For we cannot afford to have this measure fail – if it does our educational system will suffer a set-back which will harm it for generations to come.
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 real issue is national survival. For civilization – according to the old saying – "is a race between education and catastrophe." The Soviet Union, realizing this, is spending 21⁄2 times as much of its national income on education as the United States. We cannot afford to lag so far behind – it is up to our government – but basically up to you, the voters – to determine the winner of that race.
Speech source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files. Series 12. Speeches and the Press. Box 908, Folder: "Milwaukie High School, Milwaukie, Oregon, 22 April 1960".