Good morning. By any standard, this fall is something special. Today New York hosts the first game of the first "subway series" since 1956. We're about to hold the first Presidential election of the 21st century. And this school year features the biggest class of students in our Nation's history.
Fall is also budget season in Washington, time for Congress to put everything else aside, step up to the plate, and complete its work on behalf of our students and all Americans. Instead, we're 3 weeks into the new fiscal year and still running the Government on a week-by-week basis and still fighting to get a budget that reflects the priorities of our people. Today I want to talk about what's at stake, starting with education, because in the last days of this Congress, our first priority should be the future of our children.
Al Gore and I came to Washington almost 8 years ago now with a strategy of fiscal discipline, targeted tax cuts, and investment in our people. Our determination to live within our means has brought our country out of an age of deficits into an era of surpluses. We're actually paying down the national debt, and Government spending is the smallest percentage of national income it's been since 1966. And our education strategy—higher standards, accountability, greater investment—is being embraced all across America, and it's working.
The dropout rate is down; test scores and graduation rates are up. The percentage of kids going on to college is at an all-time high, thanks in part to the largest expansion of college aid since the GI bill.
This past February I submitted a balanced budget that would sustain America's prosperity by maintaining our fiscal discipline and investing in our future. The budget strengthens Social Security and Medicare, adds a Medicare prescription drug benefit, keeps us on track to pay down the debt by 2012, and invests in education, technology, the environment, and health care.
Unfortunately, while we've been working to save money for our Nation's future, the Republican majority in Congress has been focusing on ways to spend it, loading up the spending bills with record amounts of pork-barrel spending. So again this week I'm asking Congress to bring its priorities back into line with the Nation's, and there's no better place to start than education.
We can't lift our children up in schools that are simply falling down. Congress should approve my plan to help communities build new schools and repair old ones. Every day they fail to act is another day too many children attend class in drafty trailers, crowded classrooms, and crumbling buildings. There's a bipartisan majority ready to pass tax credits for school construction. It's time for the Republican leadership to stop blocking it, schedule a vote, and let it happen.
We've also made a bipartisan commitment to hire 100,000 new teachers to reduce class sizes in the early grades and proposed an initiative to improve teacher quality. We've hired about 30,000 of those teachers. But now, the Republican leadership is trying to back out of our commitment. Instead, we should follow through. I've also proposed doubling our funding for after-school programs to cover 1.6 million children.
We know after-school programs result in higher test scores, lower juvenile crime rates, and fewer drug problems. We ought to do it. And we're still waiting for Congress to show that it supports holding our schools accountable by providing the resources to turn around failing schools or shut them down and reopen them under new management.
Congress also needs to finish the rest of its work, passing a real Patients' Bill of Rights, strong hate crimes legislation, and a raise in the minimum wage. Now, in all these cases, there is a bipartisan majority in both Houses for these bills. But the majority party's leadership again is blocking progress.
Congress should also act to ensure equal treatment for immigrants and equal pay for women. And it should pass the right kind of tax cuts for middle-class Americans, targeted tax cuts that preserve our fiscal discipline, allow us to get this country out of debt, and still give Americans tax relief to save for retirement and meet the costs of long-term care, child care, and college tuition, and tax credits that support investments in our inner cities, rural areas, Native American reservations, and other places our prosperity has not yet reached.
These priorities deserve attention now, not later. If I were a Member of Congress, I wouldn't want to go home and ask people to send me back to Washington so I could finish last year's work next year.
Yesterday I signed a fourth continuing resolution to keep the Government open until next Wednesday. But I told the leadership that if they fail to meet yet another deadline, we're going to have to take the continuing resolutions one day at a time until we get the job done. So I urge them: Come back next week, and let's finish work on the budget, so the benefits can start flowing to students and families who need them most.
Thanks for listening.