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Bush Says He’ll Strengthen Education Policy

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Times Staff Writers

With his centerpiece education policy up for renewal, President Bush said Thursday that reauthorizing and strengthening the program was one of his top priorities for next year.

The law, known as “No Child Left Behind,” which he signed one year after taking office, has divided educators, drawn sharp criticism recently from the Department of Education’s inspector general, and prompted Democrats to complain that the administration has not put enough money into helping school districts meet its demands.

Bush, shifting his public focus away from the war in Iraq and the campaign against terrorism, is in the midst of two days of speaking out on domestic policy. Education was the theme Thursday, with a visit to the Education Department headquarters in Washington and then to a District of Columbia charter school. Today it’s the economy, to be highlighted in a speech at a FedEx distribution facility.

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But neither topic is a sure winner, even as he suggests they are reason to vote Republican in the upcoming elections.

In the first of six reports on No Child Left Behind, the Education Department’s inspector general found the selection of reading curricula to be rife with conflict of interest -- persons with financial stakes in reading programs are deciding which programs states can use.

In the report dated last month on the Reading First component of the program, the inspector general’s office examined the panel chosen to assess the states’ proposals for grants. It found that six of the 25 panelists had “significant professional connections” to a particular reading program.

Three of those six had links to the Reading Mastery program published by SRA/McGraw-Hill. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), said McGraw-Hill’s chairman and previous chairman had between them contributed more than $23,000 to Bush and the Republican National Committee since 1999.

The president’s remarks today on the economy will follow the announcement of monthly job figures and Allan B. Hubbard, chairman of the White House National Economic Council, forecast an upbeat tenor. He told reporters Thursday that despite the slowdown in housing prices, the still-high price of gasoline, and the ongoing problems of the Big 3 auto manufacturers, voters had reason to be optimistic about the economy.

Hubbard said the growth of the economy in the third and fourth quarters was likely to be in the 1% to 2% range, with growth for the year at 3%, which he presented as sustainable figures. “We feel very good about the economy,” Hubbard said.

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With Republicans struggling against the fallout of the scandal involving former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and the continuing political weight of the Iraq war, such events as the visit to the Woodridge Elementary and Middle School in a rundown section of the nation’s capital give Bush an opportunity to focus on a domestic policy issue that’s far from the political spotlight. It was his second visit to a school this week, following his stop at George W. Bush Elementary School in Stockton.

Even involving a program that was a top priority when he took office, Bush acknowledged room for improvement. The measure expires at the end of the 2007-2008 school year but can be extended automatically if no changes are made.

The president said that parents are not necessarily getting information about students’ progress quickly enough to switch a child’s enrollment to another school if they think a change is necessary.

“We’ve got to improve options,” the president said. He said that in some cases, parents were not being notified about how a child was performing until a new school year had begun.

“That doesn’t help,” he said, adding: “It kind of looks like people are afraid to put out results for some reason.”

He also suggested school districts were not taking advantage of federal help providing tutoring for students, or were using the money for other purposes.

james.gerstenzang@latimes. com

joel.havemann@latimes.com

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