WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday pressed forward with his controversial campaign proposal for school vouchers, but pledged to seek bipartisan consensus on how to rescue students from failing schools and ensure that every child masters fundamental reading and math skills.
The conservative-backed concept of vouchers, which funnels federal public school money to parents to help pay for private schools, is the most divisive element in Mr. Bush's education reform package, which overall has received a favorable reception from members in both parties.
With incoming Education Secretary Rod Paige at his side, Mr. Bush called for offering school districts greater flexibility in return for demonstrating improved student achievement. He urged yearly testing from third to eighth grade in reading and math to discover “who is falling behind and who needs help." And he linked financial rewards and penalties with progress in closing the achievement gap between low-income, minority students and their more affluent peers.
The President's 28-page education blueprint, entitled “No Child Left Behind," does not include many specifics or cost estimates. During the campaign, Mr. Bush proposed an extra $24.8 billion in spending and tax breaks over five years, including $6 billion for expanded college scholarships for low-income students and $5 billion for a reading program to teach all children to read by third grade.
Mr. Bush called for congressional action on his education agenda by summer so school districts can implement reforms for the 2001-02 school year.
In his remarks, he sought to bridge the gap between the Democratic preference for increasing education spending and his party's penchant for boosting local control. Federal tax dollars account for only seven percent of public education spending.
“Change will not come by adding a few new federal programs to the old," the President said. “Change will not come by disdaining or dismantling the federal role of education. I believe strongly in local control of schools. I trust local folks to chart the path to excellence. But educational excellence for all is a national issue and at this moment is a presidential priority."
Mr. Bush's proposal makes good on his campaign pledge to tackle education reform early in his administration. By focusing attention on underprivileged children and pledging an expanded federal role in ensuring positive results, Mr. Bush has departed from past Republican presidential approaches and seized an issue that traditionally has resonated for Democrats.
Congressional leaders emerged from a morning meeting at the White House praising the President's commitment to reform and downplaying a potentially divisive voucher fight.
“I just commend the President for putting education first on the national agenda," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate's education committee. “There are some areas of difference, but the overwhelming areas of agreement and of support are very, very powerful. And it seems to me that we can make important progress."
Mr. Kennedy cited accountability, quality teaching, and the expansion of Pell Grants for college students as a “very, very welcome stand."
Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio), who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee and will guide passage of Mr. Bush's plan, acknowledged that “we're going to have some bumps along the way."
But Mr. Boehner said Mr. Bush's voucher proposal simply gives schools and parents an additional option. “The President isn't in a position of wanting to impose vouchers on any state or on any local school district," Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Bush advanced a new proposal that would increase federal assistance to struggling public schools. Low-performing schools that did not make adequate progress after one year would receive additional resources for corrective measures.
If the school still failed to make progress for two more years, parents then could use some federal money - estimated during the campaign at $1,500 - to transfer their child to another public or private school, or hire a tutor.
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore advocated more federal assistance to struggling schools during the presidential campaign. But yesterday Mr. Bush credited Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.) for calling his attention to the importance of such aid.
Mr. Bingaman raised the issue during Mr. Paige's Senate confirmation hearing. “My own view is as soon as you identify that a school is failing, you need to put them on notice and begin providing help to them," Mr. Bingaman said yesterday. He said he agreed with many of Mr. Bush's accountability proposals and believes they can be enacted without vouchers.
“It is not central to what they're trying to accomplish," Mr. Bingaman said. “I would hope they would see it that way and not insist on it."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.), former vice presidential candidate, joined other moderate Democrats in announcing an alternative to Mr. Bush's plan that streamlines national education priorities and substantially increases funding for disadvantaged students.
“We still have some serious differences with the President, not just on vouchers but on the targeting of federal dollars to the nation's poorest communities, which is critical to our hopes of closing the achievement gap," Mr. Lieberman said.
Like the President's plan, the Democrats' “Three Rs" proposal ties increased flexibility with strengthened accountability. It does not contain a voucher proposal, instead emphasizing more choices among public schools such as charter schools and magnet schools.