President Bush teamed up with his wife, Barbara, on Thursday to help in the fight against illiteracy, warning that high dropout rates and low standards of student achievement pose “a test critical to the very future of America.
“When some high school grads can’t find jobs in a market begging for workers, then we’ve got a serious social imbalance. We have an education gap,” Bush said. “Let’s bridge that gap. Let’s bridge it as fast as we possibly can.”
In a speech to the American Assn. of Community and Junior Colleges, Bush lamented the extent to which levels of functional literacy and student achievement in American high schools lag behind those in Japan.
The United States remains a world leader, Bush said, but demanded: “What’s the advantage for a nation with Nobel Prize-winning novelists if their books cannot be read by 27 million functional illiterates in their own country?”
The President expressed concern that the situation will have more serious implications as the labor pool shrinks in the years ahead and those entering the work force require up-to-date skills in a competitive economy.
Offering no federal solutions to the problem, Bush instead promoted greater cooperation between academia and business, saying: “Everyone must work together if America is to remain prosperous and competitive.
“For years, rescuing underachieving students has been a quest of the heart,” he said. “Today, it’s also a test of our national will, a test critical to the very future of America.”
Bush lauded community and junior colleges as “a bridge to higher education,” providing opportunity to “the very people who are being summoned to alleviate the coming labor shortage” and to “the most disadvantaged members of the work force.”
The speech was the latest in a series of recent events that Bush has used to highlight his commitment to education, one backed up by some modest initiatives to reward excellent schools and teachers.
Mrs. Bush, who for years has been active in the campaign to combat illiteracy, accompanied her husband to the speech to receive the association’s Harry S. Truman Distinguished Service Award for her work.
In accepting the award, she said the wife of a Republican President receiving an award named for a Democrat “just confirms what I have always known: Education is the most non-partisan cause.”
The Bushes made the joint appearance at the Washington Hilton Hotel, where former President Ronald Reagan was shot on the same day eight years ago after addressing a labor group.
The anniversary passed without comment from Bush. Among those in the audience was former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was shot in the head in the attack that left Reagan with a bullet wound.