President Bush and the nation's governors wrapped up a two-day summit today by agreeing to overhaul America's educational system to narrow the gap between U.S. students and their foreign counterparts.
"No modern nation can long afford to allow so many of its sons and daughters to emerge into adulthood ignorant and unskilled," Bush said in a speech.
"The status quo is a guarantee of mediocrity, social decay and national decline," he said to underscore the threat to America's economic stature.
The two-day meeting, devoted solely to education issues, produced a general set of goals on improving the quality of education in the United States, where student test scores lag far behind other countries in areas such as science and mathematics and where illiteracy is seen as a growing problem.
"We are here to put progress before partisanship--the future before the moment--and our children before ourselves," Bush said in his speech at the University of Virginia, where the meeting was held.
Bush called on Congress to ease federal restrictions on how states may spend federal aid for education and called on state leaders to relax their own local rules.
Critics have blamed the rigid, traditional approach to education as a key flaw in dealing with a world being changed by technology.
Most governors also have been critical of the federal government for imposing strict requirements on the way federal aid for education must be spent.
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu told reporters, "I think we're going to see a coalition in which the President will strongly support that thrust of more freedom and flexibility."
Although Bush said "the American people are ready for radical reforms," the two-day summit produced agreement on only general objectives such as the need to increase literacy, achieve drug-free schools and better prepare students to enter the work force.
The federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress estimates that fewer than one in four junior high school students can write an "adequate, persuasive letter," and only half of them can figure out percentages and fractions.
The Business Council for Effective Literacy, a data-gathering group in New York, estimates that one out of every five employees--about 27 million workers--reads at no more than an eighth-grade level while most jobs require 12th-grade skills.
One in eight workers, or about 14 million, reads at the fourth-grade level or below, the Council says.
White House officials, meanwhile, were trying to soften the blow of some stinging remarks by William J. Bennett, former education secretary who currently directs the nation's anti-drug efforts.
Bennett, who served as chairman of one of the working sessions at the summit, blasted the lack of knowledge of many of the governors on education issues and complained he had listened to Republican and Democratic "pap and some stuff that rhymes with pap."
Sununu told reporters, "The President has come to the conclusion that the governors do have a strong grasp of what's going on in education in the country."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, "Mr. Bennett was just reflecting the candor of the meetings."