Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to be here. I am very pleased to be part of this wonderful and important event. And I am particularly honored to be speaking to you tonight along with Archbishop Sheehan. His presence here testifies to the significance of this gathering.
So many of my speaking engagements are before groups of people who work in the communications industry the broadcasting, cable, and telephone industries. While I am often amazed by the work of those companies, the importance of their work does not begin to compare to the importance of the work done by educators in this country.
It is almost impossible to overstate the value of education. Educators trail only parents in shaping the development of our children. Yet society undervalues the contributions of educators to our nation's welfare.
Indeed, I can speak from personal experience about the impact educators have had on my life. After my parents, it was my teachers at my elementary school the nuns of the Sacred Heart School in San Juan, Puerto Ricowho had the biggest impact on me. For it was these nuns, whom I called "madres," who shaped and molded me. They were not only excellent academic teachers, but more importantly, they imparted in me the values that have guided me throughout my life. I have to confess that I thought my nuns were too strict and that the sound of a clicker still sends a small shiver down my spine. I recognize today, however, that they were tremendous builders of "character."
And that's why I'm particularly honored to join you in your celebration of the educators and students who exemplify "character." You celebrate the type of educators and students who should get more recognition than they normally do. These people are role models for the most important qualities we hope for in our children trustworthiness, fairness, respect, citizenship, caring, and responsibility in a word, "character."
And if one quality has stayed with me in particular it is the importance of respect. From the nuns, my parents and other family members I learned at a very early age how respect and tolerance of others is fundamental to a well-functioning, fair and democratic society.
You may know that my late grandfather, Dennis Chavez, represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate for many years. He was a wonderful person a man of great character -- and he continues to be a great inspiration to me and many others today. You may not know that my grandfather had to leave school after the 7th grade to go to work to help his family. He didn't go to high school or college, but educated himself by reading at the public library here in Albuquerque. He did go to law school later in his life and always placed a special value on education and books. That's why he helped many New Mexicans who went to law school in Washington, D.C. (that's when New Mexico had no law school) by finding them jobs so they could afford to go to school. My favorite story that I've heard from some of those students is that my grandfather required them to show him their grades on a regular basis!
The lessons I learned from my grandfather's life influence the way I do my job at the Federal Communications Commission. For example, my grandfather was well known as a champion of the poor, those who needed a voice in the decisions that affected their lives.
In the same way, I have made it a priority to understand how each vote I cast affects the average person. Not just, "What would this mean for NBC or for US WEST," but what does this mean for the average person on the street? These questions come up in a variety of areas because the FCC's work touches people's lives and our children's lives in many ways.
For example, we oversee the broadcast industry. Along with parents and teachers, broadcasters and the entertainment media exert significant influence over how our children develop. I keep that fact firmly in mind when the FCC is faced with decisions on how to regulate broadcasters. For instance, the FCC determines what public interest obligations broadcasters should have in exchange for receiving free use of the airwaves. I take a fairly expansive view of broadcasters' public interest duties, in large measure because of the influence they have over our children. I expect them to take that responsibility seriously. That includes behaving responsibly towards our children.
And that is why I question the amount of gratuitous violence, sex and other inappropriate material that our children are exposed to on television and radio. The events of last week in Littleton have painfully and tragically brought to the forefront the question of violence in our culture and how it affects our children.
Here's what Dave Thomas, the DA of Littleton, had to say:
"[America] has to debate, carefully, the role of movies, television, music and violent video games and the extent to which they desensitize vulnerable young minds. [It must confront the fact] that guns are everywhere. [It must recognize that] we are not taking care of our children, we as an adult community are not doing a very good job of dealing with our kids."
These are hard words. But as a mother of two children, I can't close my eyes to reality. All of us need to be more involved and cognizant of what our children are watching and doing. But I also wear another hat, that's my government hat. I believe the FCC has a role in giving parents the tools they need to deal with violence in the media. That's why I'm particularly glad to be involved in the roll-out of the V-chip. The V-chip, which will be available in new television sets sold after July 1 of this year, will give parents the ability to monitor what their children are watching on television. It will give parents the ability to block programming that they deem inappropriate for their children.
I firmly believe that the values that we celebrate tonight the values that represent good character are the ones we don't see enough of on TV. When television executives come to see me, and when I give speeches, I try to impress upon them the social responsibility that comes with having the power they have.
Another important way the FCC affects children is through our education rate, or e-rate, program. The e-rate program allows schools and libraries throughout the nation to apply for discounts for Internet connections, telephone and internal wiring. Under the program, more children in the U.S. will have access to the Internet for educational purposes. I'm happy to report New Mexico schools and libraries will be receiving around $18 million dollars in e-rate funding this year, and many of our Catholic schools represented here will receive e-rate funding as well.
The e-rate is good social policy and good competition policy for the next century. It's good social policy because it helps ensure that some groups of children, especially poor and minority children, are not left behind in the information revolution. Children living in poorer households today are far less likely to have access to a computer or to the Internet.
As you may know, the gap between rich and poor in this country continues to grow. If we don't make sure that all children are exposed to computers and the Internet, we will allow a permanent digital divide to be created. The e-rate program gives the biggest discounts to the schools with the largest numbers of poor students. In this way, the program targets those students who are most at risk of falling behind.
In addition, the FCC's e-rate program is good competition policy. Today, hundreds of thousands of technology jobs in this country go unfilled because American workers lack high tech skills. Exposing students to the vast potential of the Internet at school will help stimulate the technology skills and interests of millions of children. The benefits to the U.S. economy, and to its social fabric, will be incalculable.
Of course, the events in Littleton also painfully remind us of the perils of the Internet. The Internet, with all of its benefits, has been and can be used inappropriately and criminally. That is why, as an FCC Commissioner, I encourage schools and libraries that are connected to the Internet, to have in place software to filter out inappropriate content. And, as a parent, I encourage other parents to monitor and find out how their children are using the Internet.
Finally, I would like to again commend and celebrate the recipients of the Catholic Character Counts awards. You are the real stars tonight, and I'm glad you are receiving this well-deserved recognition. Your achievements and success in these troubled times give us hope as we move into the new century.
Thank you once again for inviting me to be with you tonight.