Speech at Kenwood and Murray Schools PTA

"Unless we stop overcrowding in our schools; unless we reduce the workload of our overburdened teachers; unless we provide more up-to-date buildings we shall never have the chance to solve the other and higher problems of education, which interest you and me and upon which the whole future of our nation may well depend."
Chicago, IL • February 09, 1955

I wish I had the time tonight -- and that you had the patience - to discuss a number of the many problems confronting our public schools. These include not only the need for new buildings and more teachers, but dozens of other important problems. For example, many of you are concerned, as I am, about the quality of our education. You want to know how successful it is in creating thinking citizens, free from prejudice, and dedicated to the highest spiritual ideals of our western culture. I am sure you share my thought that we do not want to produce students who are merely walking encyclopedias of information, good athletes, or good candidates for quiz programs, but men and women capable of reflective and original thought, inquisitive, accustomed to hard mental work, aware of the fact that the only permanent victory the 20th century will be a victory won over the minds and hearts of man, not with bullets, but with ideas and ideals.

But these problems concerning the purpose and quality of our education must be deferred, at least for tonight, by the necessity of facing up to the gross, material, physical, and obvious deficiencies of our educational system which can be cured and have to be cured with money. Unless we stop overcrowding in our schools; unless we reduce the workload of our overburdened teachers; unless we provide more up-to-date buildings we shall never have the chance to solve the other and higher problems of education, which interest you and me and upon which the whole future of our nation may well depend.

Putting first things first, --- therefore, what are we in Chicago doing today to improve our public schools?

What about this new $50 million bond issue? Why wasn’t it $100 million? How well in fact are the members of the Board of Education, such as myself, safeguarding and developing the educational chances for your children?

You have a right to hear from me on such questions. And I am exceedingly pleased to start off my report by saying this: -

The physical development of our school plant is going ahead fast. We shall go ahead even faster in the years ahead. By 1960-1962 barring calamities Chicago will have one of the most modern school systems of any large city in the United States.

The reasons for my optimism are these.

Consider the atmosphere surrounding our school system of the Board of Education just one year ago, in May, 1954.

At that time it was apparent that educational moneys would be needed to carry on the building program which was started in 1950. Yet there was doubt about the willingness of the governor to approve additional legislation authorizing the Board of Education to raise money. There was doubt whether the legislature would move rapidly enough to permit the question of a bond issue to come before the voters in 1953. There was doubt about the taxpayers’ organizations -- whether or not they would [text unintelligible] an increase in taxes which were already burdensome.

And, finally, there was doubt as to whether the voters would further obligate themselves by approving a new issue of bonds in a referendum vote.

In this atmosphere of doubt and hesitation the Board began its meetings in May, 1954.

The Board itself, however, had no doubt about the need for additional money. The problem was simply this: How could the Board be sure of obtaining the support of all groups necessary to grantee quick decisive action? It would have been fatal, for example, if the Board by asking for too much had surrendered its chance of obtaining the essentials.

In resolving the difficulties of this situation, the Board gave most serious consideration to these factors:

First - we realized that we are merely members of a local Board of Education -- appointed not elected -- and that in the final analysis, only the elected representatives meeting in Springfield have the authority to undertake burdens which will add to the taxation of our citizens. Therefore, we believed that we had an obligation to report to the state legislature in detail, so that the governor and legislature could have confidence in our administration, and no quarrel with our program.

Second - we realized, as you do, that the legislature meets every two years. Because of these biannual sessions we believed that we should report to the legislature every two years telling them what we were doing, how we were doing it, and prove to them that our Board was proceeding in an efficient and economical manner, which merited the legislature’s support.

The Board, therefore, asked Dr. Willis to set the maximum amount of money which we could spend intelligently in the city of Chicago for the construction of new school buildings, acquisition of sites, and the improvement of existing school buildings, within the next two years. Dr. Willis annualized the situation. He estimated the existing work-load on his architectural staff; the need for population surveys to determine where the best building sites are located; the need for adequate time to [text unintelligible.]

And Dr. Willis reported to the Board that in the next two year period the maximum amount which could be spent intelligently by the Board was $50 million.

The Board accepted Dr. Willis’ recommendation unanimously. We took appropriate steps to make sure that the various civic groups were fully acquainted with our building program and our thinking in connection with it. We kept the governor informed as to why we were doing what we were doing, and we were in frequent contact with important state legislators so that they, too, would be fully informed. We realized that one of the most important factors in this whole situation was timing. In a nutshell, we had to have permission from the state legislature early in 1955 in order to get the referendum on the ballot in the general election of April, 1955.

Now let us consider the totally different atmosphere that prevails today -- less than one year later.

Authority for the Board of Education to proceed with the issuance of $50 million in bonds has passed the Illinois legislature, both the house and the Senate, unanimously. The statute giving this authority was the number one bill to come before both bodies.

It was signed by the governor immediately, and today at the Board of Education we approved the very wording of the ballot which will be placed before the voters in the April elections.

Furthermore, speakers are being trained to inform the public about the need for the $50 million bond issue, and a schools crisis committee has been organized to explain the need for this new bond issue to all the citizens of Cook County. The various taxpayers’ federations, and all the civic groups are behind us 100%. And every one of the political candidates of both parties are loud in their support of our program.

Thus, one year later we have a totally different picture, free of doubt and hesitation. Our $50 million bond program is well on its way to successful completion.

What does all this mean in terms of results?

First, it means that our existing building program will be carried on and accelerated by an additional $50 million for building purposes, to be spent within the next two years. This means that the Board will be building new schools, acquiring new school sites, and modernizing old schools as fast as it is humanly possible for the staff to proceed.

Second, the state legislature and the governor and the people have been and will continue to be told that this $50 million bond issue is only a beginning. Our problems are so vast and so varied that we cannot begin to solve them with $50 million spent in two years.

The governor and the legislature have been further informed that in all likelihood the Board of Education will be coming back to Springfield in 1957 with a request for at least another $50 million bond issue, and when we do, we confidently expect approval once again from the governor and the legislature -- no matter which party is in office!

So, it is not too much to say that we can look forward to a four-year period during which the Board of Education will be spending approximately $100 million for new school construction.

Now it is always dangerous to predict what will happen five years from tonight, but I’ll risk the prediction and express the hope that in 1959 the Board will be in a position to request authority for $100 million worth of bonds. And, in 1961 for another $100 million.

If these predictions come true, and they are not unreasonable, we shall have spent approximately $350 million on new sites, buildings, improvements, etc. in the period 1950-1953.

Compare these figures to comparable figures covering earlier years in the history of the Board.

For example, in the 10-year period from 1930-1940, the Board spent $58,714,000 on the acquisition of new building sites, new schools, modernization, etc.

In the 10-year period from 1940-1950, according to the figures I have just given you, we will be spending $200 million -- or four times as much as has been spent in any 10-year period in the 20th country for educational purposes in the city of Chicago.

To me this represents an intelligent, progressive, and forward-looking program for our city. Conditions may develop which make it possible for us to proceed even more rapidly than I have indicated in reciting the figures I have just quoted to you. But, since I genuinely believe that the broad outline of expenditures which I have just related represents the kind of optimistic and determined approach characteristic of the Board of Education today, I feel no reluctance in asserting that the future, as far as the physical aspects of our public school plant are concerned, is an encouraging one.

Now, if you will permit me to change the subject for just a few concluding words, I should like to focus your attention on several different, but important considerations.

As the newest member and the youngest member of the Board, I would be remiss if I failed to explain that my optimism concerning the future of Chicago public schools not based solely on the money we will raise, nor on the efficiency with which it will be spent. My optimism lies in numerous additional factors which have come to my attention during my first year as a member of the Board. Some of these which I would like to call to your attention are the following:

First - I have been greatly impressed by the zeal and the devotion of our principals and teachers. Many of them work in schools where the population changes constantly, -- where students arrive who can’t speak English, - where other students appear at the age of 14, 15, or 16 having spent all their lives in areas of our country where educational opportunities are so backward that these students can do only 2nd and 3rd grade work. Other students appear who have never seen an inside toilet and have to be taught how to use one. And in many class our teachers have to cope simultaneously with 40 children whose aptitudes and intelligence vary from the near moron level to the genius I.Q.

It is true that the single salary schedule and the recent nominal pay increases are beginning to give our teachers a small degree of dollars and cents rewards for their efforts.

But, if we were to increase all teachers’ salaries by 25% or even 50%, we could not pay for the devotion and skill we are lucky enough to receive from these thousands of dedicated persons.

In assessing the resources of all Chicagoland, in my opinion, the value of our teachers would rank high in any evaluation of our human resources.

Second - I’d like to remark on the invaluable interest and assistance of groups like your own. At our recent public hearings on the annual budget every member of our Board was impressed by the competence, knowledge and sincerity of the citizens who appeared before us. Many problems were dramatically called to our attention. Fire hazards, overcrowding, the need for recreational and library and auditorium facilities were described in such a manner that I am sure action will be taken as a result.

Third -- the coverage being given by our newspapers to the Board of Education is a great assistance. About a year ago many will remember the series of articles on the cost of school construction in Chicago. Comparisons were odious with comparable cases in or cities, and even with parochial schools in our own. Today many of you may know, we have cut the construction costs on many new projects from $1.50 per cubic foot to less than $1.

These newspaper articles and others like them have beneficial effects far outlasting their transient appearance in the press.

Finally, I’d like to say a good word for the administrative staff -- for Dr. Willis and the assistant superintendents, for the men and women who oversee our special activities like the art program, the lunchroom services, the R.O.T.C.; the education of the crippled, the deaf, the blind, the bedridden; our instruction in the vocational trades, welding carpentry, electronics, automobile repair, plastering, etc.

To me these studies and special services read like a great litany of American life and ideals. Only in the United States can fabulous opportunities like these be offered free-of-charge every day of our school year. Only here is there such an all-encompassing program of services to every child -- the weak, the retarded, the craftsman, and the scholar.

We have much progress to make in toughening our program to prepare our students better for the titanic struggles still to come in our country. But, we have a great and growing physical plant, well mentioned; we have 12,000 devoted teachers; we have interested and intelligent citizen criticism and support.

The problems of our times will respond only to thought, and to prayer, to study, and to hard work. American men and women have possessed and exhibited these qualities in all our history. I am sure we shall not fail to believe in ourselves and in our culture today.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
Get the Quote of the Week in Your Inbox