REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON CLASS SIZE
2:30 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Over the weekend, we made some progress toward creating a budget that reflects the values of the American people, respects the need for our government to live within its means and looks to our future. I believe we can finish our work by Wednesday if we put partisanship aside and focus instead on achieving goals that the vast majority of the American people want us to achieve: a better education for our children, safer streets, a clean environment, more Americans brought into the circle of our growing prosperity.
Improving education is perhaps the greatest domestic challenge our nation faces. Education is at the heart of this budget debate. Last fall, we took an important step to improve learning in the classroom. We reached an agreement with Congress to help states and school districts begin hiring 100,000 new, highly-trained teachers to reduce class size in the early grades.
The need was obvious. School enrollments are exploding. Record numbers of teacher are or will soon be at retirement. And the research is clear that students do learn more in smaller classes with quality teachers.
Last week, we learned from a new survey of the nation's largest school districts that our class size reduction initiative so far has done precisely what it was intended to do. It has put more teachers in the classroom and increased training for those already there with a minimum of red tape and bureaucracy. Now we have even more new evidence that our class size reduction is working.
Today I am releasing a new report from the Department of Education. It's called "Local Success Stories: Reducing Class Size." It shows that in just one year, schools across America have actually hired over 29,000 new, highly-trained teachers, thanks to our class size reduction initiative. The report also shows that in the early grades in those schools, class size has been reduced by an average of five students per class. Over 1.7 million students are now directly benefiting from this class size initiative.
It shows we are headed in the right direction, and that's the good news. But we must remember, only a fraction of America's students have been reached. So we must continue down that path, not abandon it. I am committed to providing more teachers and better teachers for all our schools. I want to make sure every young student in America receives the benefits of more individual attention, and a more disciplined learning environment in a smaller class size setting.
Now, last fall, congressional Republicans agreed to support this initiative. Indeed, it was election season and they even went home and campaigned on it. It was a good idea then, and it's still a good idea. But suddenly the Republican majority has mysteriously changed its mind. Instead of keeping their commitment to hire more teachers and reduce class size -- again I say something they bragged on and ran on last year -- now they want an open-ended block grant which could even be used for vouchers for private schools. I think that is wrong.
Nine out of ten students in our country attend public schools. The percentage of the funding coming from the federal government is already too meager, in my judgment. Therefore, our taxpayer money should go for more teachers and smaller classes in our public schools, not for vouchers for private schools.
I am absolutely committed to keeping the promise that I made, and the promise that Congress made, to reduce class size with more quality teachers in the early grades. We need to work together to find a way to keep that promise.
We also must demand more accountability for results, so I call on Congress to pass our plan to help states and school districts turn around failing schools or shut them down. Working together we can find a way to deliver a budget that meets our values.
We also value the safety of our families, so we must extend our successful COPS program, which has given us already the lowest crime rate in 30 years, and now put up to 50,000 new community police officers in our neighborhoods with the modern equipment they need to keep the crime rate coming down.
We must support our Lands Legacy Initiative because we value the environment, to set aside precious natural areas for future generations, and reject special interest riders that would endanger our environment.
Because we value one America with justice for all, we must pass strong hate crimes legislation. And I would like to say that I want to express my personal appreciation to the parents of Matthew Shepard and to the police officers who have come with them here today and have gone to Capitol Hill to lobby for the hate crimes legislation.
We value our national security and our leadership in the world. Therefore, we have to pay our dues to the United Nations. We value equal opportunity. And so before Congress leaves we should tackle one more urgent priority: We ought to raise the minimum wage so that more people will participate in our prosperity. And we ought to raise the minimum wage without holding it hostage to special interest tax cuts that are not paid for and don't address national needs.
We can do all this, and we can do it and pay for it, not spend the Social Security trust fund and continue to pay down the debt so that in 15 years we'll be debt-free for the first time since 1835. I urge Congress to continue to work with me in a bipartisan fashion to finish the job the American people sent us here to do.
Q Mr. President, on the issue of funding for teachers, sir, you resent it when Congress tells you to spend money in ways in which you do not deem appropriate. Why should a state governor who would like to spend that money differently feel any differently?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, because it's not their money. If they don't want the money, they don't have to take it. If they're offended by it, they can give it to other states and other school districts.
Look, we have -- the difference is, we are acting on evidence, based on what the local school districts tell us and what we know. We have a record number of schoolchildren; we have a record number of teachers starting to retire. We have mountain upon mountain of evidence that smaller classes in the early grades lead to permanent learning gains if the teachers are well-qualified.
And Congress agreed with that last year. I'd like to see them answer instead why they're ready so -- excuse me, so willing to abandon something they campaigned on and asked people to vote for them for doing just a year ago.
This is the right thing to do. It's good educational policy. And let me remind you that the teachers have supported this; the educators have supported this. And the evidence supports this. That's why I'm for it.
Q Mr. President, do you expect China to get into the --
Q The Department of Labor --
THE PRESIDENT: One at a time, sorry.
Q The Department of Labor, at your direction, is drafting regulations to change the use of unemployment insurance so that it could be used for family leave purposes. Opponents of this idea say you don't have the authority to do this, that any such change should be done by federal legislation. How do you respond to that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I was informed that we did have the authority to do it in the narrow way that we're doing it. And I think if you want more information on what the arguments are, you will have to talk to either the Labor Department Counsel or the appropriate people at the White House. But I obviously would not have done it if I hadn't been told that we had the authority to do it.
Q Mr. President, do you expect China to get into the World Trade Organization this time around?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know, but I hope so. Ambassador Barshefsky and Mr. Sperling have gone over there to work on it and we're doing our best.
Q Are things looking better?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I don't know yet. Let's not characterize the in-between until we see whether we can produce the product.
Q Mr. President, -- (inaudible) -- real sticking point --
THE PRESIDENT: Obviously, we have a big difference of opinion on education, and I feel very strongly about it. The education community and the country feels strongly about it. And the Democrats in Congress feel strongly about it. And the Republicans felt strongly about it when they were facing an election, and I think it's wrong for them to abandon a commitment the next year that they were proud of in an election year. So I hope we can work that out.
But the other issues I mentioned are all important to me, as well. Can we do it all my Wednesday? In a heartbeat if we decide to get together. We resolved very quickly many of our differences over the foreign operations bill, and we can do that on these other bills if we really work at it.
Q Mr. President, Mexico has held its first presidential primary. The PRI has governed Mexico for over 70 years. What do you think about it, the primary yesterday?
THE PRESIDENT: I think it's a good thing that they held a primary, and I think the more democracy they embrace, the better. So I would applaud them and congratulate them for having done so. And particularly, I would like to congratulate President Zedillo, who took the initiative to promote this primary and to open up the political process in his country.
Q Mr. President, how would you characterize the situation in Pakistan differently than George W. Bush did this last week?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, I -- look. I don't want to get into that. You all can handle the presidential campaign without me. You know that I'm very concerned about the interruption of civilian leadership in Pakistan. We would like to see a stronger democratic system there, not the abandonment of the system that they did have. And we are -- we have communicated that to General Musharraf and to the others, and we will continue to work with them, and hope that we can achieve some progress there.
And I also want to encourage them to continue to work to diminish tensions with India and to resolve matters in Kashmir, not to continue to use that, as has been done in times past, to inflame tensions on both sides of the line of control, and in both countries. Those countries need to be working on their long-term challenges and their common interests. And so I will continue to push for that as well.
END 2:42 P.M. EST
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