Thank you, Andrew Coffin, for that kind introduction. And thank you, Ron Robinson. I really admire your lifelong dedication to ensuring our next generations know and embrace freedom. There’s nothing more important than the formation of America’s future, her students.
Rancho del Cielo is a national treasure. For President Reagan, it represented America. It represented freedom. Vast potential, possibilities, and opportunities—just waiting to be seized.
Reagan said the Ranch “cast a spell” on him. Now it does on all those who walk in his footsteps, ride along his paths, and meet the man in his humble home.
It’s hard to imagine a conservative movement without Young America’s Foundation. There are quite a few folks who like to claim the “conservative” mantle, but they weren’t there when it all started nearly 60 years ago in William F. Buckley Jr.’s living room.
Students gathered there to outline what it’s always meant to be a conservative. Their seminal “Sharon Statement” raised what Reagan called “a banner of bold colors, no pale pastels…standing for certain values which will not be compromised.”
That each of us is endowed by God with freedom; that political freedom and economic freedom are “indivisible;” that government must be limited in order for man to be free; that the free market economy produces the most prosperity and lifts more people out of poverty than any other economic philosophy; and, that America must always win.
These are indeed “eternal truths,” bold principles for that time, and ours. All students would do well to read the “Sharon Statement,” and more students would do well to embrace its principles in their own lives and on their own campuses.
No one embodied these principles more than our 40th president. Ronald Reagan believed there’s no limit to what free people can do.
I admired—and try to emulate—his sunny demeanor and eternal optimism. Reagan believed in all of us, in our potential, and that of our country’s.
“We’re too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams,” he said.
Those were words Americans needed to hear as he sought the presidency. The malaise was real, but it didn’t develop overnight. It mounted year after year, administration after administration with more taxes, more programs, more rules, more regulations—more government. By the time the Misery Index peaked, more Americans believed in government than in themselves.
Well, Reagan stood athwart history and redirected it—and us. Government was not, is not, and never will be the solution to problems. Rather, as he put it, it is the problem.
Reagan got government out of our pockets and out of our way, trusting people to live their own lives and determine their own destinies.
His freedom philosophy restored American confidence and American strength. And that threatened the “evil empire.”
I still think of the times I traveled behind the Iron Curtain: once as a high school student through Czechoslovakia and East Germany, once as a Calvin College student for several days in East Germany, and later as a young mom.
The difference between East and West Germany—between tyranny and freedom—was stark. Communists, however, had conned too many in the West into thinking that there was no difference. That a nation without God was just as valid as one Nation under God. That we’d best learn to “coexist.” That they would never be defeated.
But Reagan said, no. “We win, they lose.”
Look no further than inside the front doors of this Center for more on that. Each dismantled piece of the Berlin Wall is a testament to Reagan’s force of purpose and principle.
While that wall was reduced to rubble, there’s another kind of wall that needs tearing down today.
This wall is just as old and just as devastating to those who—through no fault of their own—happen to live on the wrong side.
I’m referring to a wall in education that keeps too many students from learning.
It separates wealthy, powerful, or well-connected students from those who aren’t wealthy, powerful, or well-connected. They have about as much education freedom in America today as East Germans had freedom to do anything back then.
Too many students are up against another “empire”—governments, unions, associations of this, and organizations of that. It’s an education cabal that protects the status quo at the expense of just about everyone else.
But “status quo,” Reagan reminded us, is just “Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’”
The Reagan Administration warned of that mess 36 years ago in its landmark “A Nation at Risk” report. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today,” it concluded, “we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Since then, we have spent over $1 trillion at the federal level alone trying to fix education.
But, as Reagan once asked, “what have we bought with all that spending?”
Well, a very recent study by folks at Stanford and Harvard tells a grim story. The study looks at the past 50 years of attempts to fix education. It confirms that all the additional spending did nothing to improve the gulf in student achievement between those with freedom and those without.
We are still a nation at risk. In fact, we are a nation at greater risk.
More government is clearly not the solution to this problem. Again, it is the problem. Yet, like a broken record, sycophants of “the system” insist otherwise.
Well, our strategy is this: students win, they lose.
Students win with freedom.
First, freedom from government. When Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Department of Education 40 years ago in a nod to teachers’ unions, Congress vowed that the move would “not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education [nor] diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States.” That’s the law, and I take it seriously.
So, we are breaking the stranglehold Washington has on America’s students, starting with all the social engineering from the previous administration. We are pulling back on staggering regulatory overreaches, including one with which I’m sure you’re familiar, Title IX.
Perhaps what we have not done is just as important. We have not imposed new regulations or new requirements not rooted in law. We are not meddling in matters properly left to communities and to families.
The family is the first school, and, as Reagan said, “both our public and our private schools exist to aid our families in the instruction of our children.” He was right then, and he’s still right today.
So, let’s stop and rethink the definition of public education. Today, it’s often defined as one-type of school, funded by taxpayers, controlled by government. But if every student is part of “the public,” then every way and every place a student learns is ultimately of benefit to “the public.” That should be the new definition of public education.
While it is true that about 83 percent of students today are enrolled in traditional public schools, it’s also true that 60 percent of their families say they would prefer something different… if only they had the freedom to choose.
That’s why our Education Freedom Scholarships proposal is so exciting. I hope you’ve seen the plan we recently announced and the legislation that was introduced. It’s a federal tax-credit—which will not create a new federal program or grow the federal government in any way. It will instead fuel state-led efforts to develop more opportunities for their own students.
And we believe students of all ages should be free to pursue the education that’s right for them. That includes multiple pathways to higher education that can lead to successful careers. And students have more opportunities now than they’ve had in decades with an on-fire economy.
Learning needs to be lifelong, and students should be free to decide their education each step of that journey.
Lifelong learning and freedom are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.
And Reagan warned that freedom is “fragile; it needs protection.” Our defense of freedom must be ever vigilant.
So, he asked, “are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”
Today, only about 15 percent of America’s students have a reasonable understanding of American history and civics. As a result, more young people think they prefer socialism over capitalism and “my truth” over the truth.
But, as G.K. Chesterton said, “fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
So, let’s be honest about a growing civic sickness.
Learning is the pursuit of truth, but students are often told there is no such thing as truth. Acknowledging it means certain feelings or certain ideas could be wrong. It is much more comfortable to say: “there is no truth. There’s nothing that could challenge what we want to believe.”
But learning isn’t about feeling comfortable. It’s about thinking. And it’s a willingness to engage with any and all ideas—even ones with which you disagree or ones that aren’t your own.
Truth can be pursued, and it can be known. All students need the freedom to learn it.
Ultimately, our education freedom agenda is about acknowledging that each of us is ennobled with a unique purpose and unique talents to fulfill it. We all need the freedom to discover and develop our abilities and aspirations—and then, to do something constructive with them… for ourselves, our families, our communities, and for our country.
Ronald Reagan said that “there’s a flickering spark in us all, which if struck at just the right age…can light the rest of our lives.”
If each of us embraces the freedom to achieve our fullest potential, our lights will brighten the city on a hill for the whole world to see.