Good morning. In recent weeks, Congress and our administration have been engaged in final budget negotiations that will set the direction our Nation takes as we enter the new millennium. This week we made good progress. Today I want to talk to you about what we achieved, why I fought hard for priorities like better schools and safer streets, and what we still must do to finish a budget that prepares for the future, continues to pay down the debt, and honors our values.
I wanted to make sure the very first budget of the 21st century puts education first. That's why I stood firm on our commitment to hire 100,000 quality teachers to reduce class size in the early grades. We made this promise with Congress last year, and schools around the country already are hiring more than 29,000 teachers to give 1.7 million children the chance to learn in smaller classes.
The research is clear on this. Students learn more in smaller classes where they get more attention. And as I said in the State of the Union Address, we not only need more teachers; we need better teachers. Under the plan we worked out with Congress this week, every teacher hired with these funds must be fully qualified and know the subjects he or she is hired to teach. School districts can also use some funds to better prepare their existing teachers to meet the needs of 21st century students. We need to stay on this path of hiring 100,000 quality teachers to reduce class size.
The budget agreement also more than doubles our investment for after-school programs and increases funding for our efforts to connect all our schools to the Internet, for our GEAR UP program which provides mentors to prepare at-risk children for college, and for our Hispanic education initiatives. I am pleased Congress has put politics aside and put education first in this budget.
We're making progress in other areas as well. We know America is safer. The crime rate is at a 25-year low. But it's not nearly as safe as it can and should be. We must keep the crime rate coming down. The budget agreement invests in the success of our COPS program which has already funded 100,000 community police officers, by providing the resources to hire up to 50,000 more of them over the next 5 years in neighborhoods where crime rates are still too high.
We've made progress on the efforts that Vice President Gore and I have developed to set aside funds to preserve natural areas and to protect our environment for future generations. However, we've still got some work to do on this and we must oppose antienvironmental provisions that put special interest ahead of the public interest.
With all this progress, our budget work isn't complete yet. And I'm committed to working with Congress to reach agreement before they recess this year on the issues that are still outstanding, from passing meaningful hate crimes legislation to providing relief for families suffering under the impact of Hurricane Floyd, to paying our U.N. dues, to passing the work incentives improvement act so that people with disabilities can gain a job without losing their health care.
In addition to the budget, I urge Congress to keep working on other critical issues: commonsense gun safety legislation to keep guns out of the wrong hands; a real Patients' Bill of Rights families have been waiting for for too long; a raise in the minimum wage, which shouldn't be held hostage to special interest tax cuts that aren't paid for and don't address national needs; and finally, measures to save Social Security and Medicare for the 21st century and modernize Medicare to include a voluntary prescription drug benefit. I urge Congress to work with me in meeting all these goals.
This has been a good week for America. We're staying on the path that has brought us the longest peacetime expansion in history, the highest homeownership in history, nearly 20 million new jobs, a 30-year low in unemployment, a 20-year low in poverty rates, and the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years. Now we've got the chance of a lifetime to shape the future of our dreams for our children. Let's finish the job.
Thanks for listening.