More Education Aid Is Theme of Bush Radio Talk

Times Staff Writer

Facing a year of intense political maneuvering, President Bush on Saturday highlighted a signature issue -- education reform -- that has won greater bipartisan backing than his other domestic initiatives.

In his first weekly radio address of the new year, Bush announced he will seek a $1-billion increase in federal spending for poor children.

But in a portent of partisan disputes to come on an array of issues as both major political parties gear up for the 2004 elections, Democrats quickly denounced Bush's move as inadequate.

The exchange set the stage for a Wednesday ceremony at the White House where the president plans to celebrate the first anniversary of his signing of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law, passed by Congress with broad bipartisan support, grants needy families greater control over their children's public education by allowing parents to transfer children to better schools, or receive funds to pay for after-school tutoring.

Some critics have said that approach emphasizes standardized testing at the expense of instructional time, and imposes unfair penalties on problem schools. But Bush rejected such criticism.

"No parent will have to settle year after year for schools that do not teach and will not change," he said.

"Instead of getting excuses, parents will now get choices."

Bush also noted that his new budget request, if approved by Congress, would mark the largest federal funding in history for students in low-income families, boosting such aid to $12.3 billion.

As part of that increase, Bush is seeking an additional $75 million for the Reading First program, which sets a national goal of making sure that every child is reading by the third grade. If approved, total federal spending for this program would exceed $1.1 billion.

The president is scheduled to deliver his 2004 budget plan to Congress next month.

"Too many students and lower-income families fall behind early, resulting in a terrible gap in test scores between these students and their more fortunate peers," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

"Our reforms will not be complete until every child in America has an equal chance to succeed in school and rise in the world."

The White House is proud that this administration has increased overall federal spending on public schools by 40%, to more than $22 billion in the current school year.

It is no secret that education reform will be a hallmark issue of a likely Bush reelection campaign.

In the last year, Bush has touted enactment of the education reform bill as a triumph of bipartisan cooperation -- and proof that he has made good on a campaign promise to "change the tone" in Washington.

The law requires annual state tests in reading and mathematics for every child in grades three through eight, beginning in the fall of 2005.

Bush said in his radio remarks that Washington now is providing to states "more than enough money" to pay for the testing. He called such testing "the only way to know which students are learning and which students need extra help so we can give them help before they fall further behind."

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who worked closely with Bush on the education bill, said that without even greater funding, the president's education priorities amount to "just hollow talk."

"The president's proposal may provide the money to test our children, but not enough to teach them," Kennedy said. "It's wrong to ask schools to do better on pocket change, especially as states face $68-billion shortfalls."

Bush is scheduled to return to the White House this afternoon, ending a 10-day working vacation at his ranch near here.

Bush has spent that time not only relaxing, but also working on his State of the Union address to be delivered Jan. 28 to a joint session of Congress.

In addition, Bush has been monitoring the military buildup for a possible war against Iraq and behind-the-scenes diplomatic attempts to dissuade North Korea from moving ahead with its nuclear program.

On Friday, he told Army troops at Ft. Hood, about 90 miles south of here, to be prepared "in the coming months" for a possible showdown with Iraq over United Nations demands that Baghdad rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.

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