Bush unveils school plan

Republican candidate would pour $5 billion into literacy initiative

Reading by third grade

Details of proposal separate him from GOP conservatives

March 29, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RESTON, Va. -- Calling literacy the key to success in the new economy, Texas Gov. George W. Bush proposed a national initiative yesterday aimed at teaching every child to read by the end of third grade.

The Republican presidential contender, who wants to make education the "defining issue" of his candidacy, called for a five-year, $5 billion federal investment in teaching poor children to read.

Bush termed child illiteracy "a national emergency" that must be addressed. He made his remarks at the start of a two-day mid-Atlantic swing that mingles policy, politics and $1.5 million in fund raising for his campaign.

FOR THE RECORD - Under Texas Gov. George W. Bush's education proposals, the federal government would impose new requirements on states that receive federal education aid. Among the requirements would be annual testing of all students in at least grades three through eight. States would be free to choose their own tests. The federal government would not have to approve the tests, as The Sun reported yesterday.

In New Jersey last night, he received the endorsement of publisher Steve Forbes, a former rival for the Republican nomination.

Today, he will hold an afternoon rally at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, then attend a $250,000 fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor hotel.

Both Bush and his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore, say they want to make education a central issue in the general election campaign.

Yesterday, the Texan also tried to use it to position himself in the mainstream, by stressing his differences on the issue with members of his party, as well as with Gore and the Clinton administration.

Without mentioning Gore's name, Bush accused him of wanting to simply throw more money at the problem of failing schools.

Gore has proposed $115 billion in federal spending to hire new teachers, repair deteriorating school buildings and offer preschool to all 4-year-olds.

Bush dismissed Gore's demands for revolutionary change in education as "empty words." The vice president's plan is doomed to fail, he said, because it lacks the means to hold schools accountable for improving student performance.

"If you don't know where you're headed, it doesn't make much sense to pick up the pace," the Texas governor said, prompting some chuckles from an invited audience of Asian-American business people, which otherwise remained silent during his 20-minute speech.

The event was held in the Northern Virginia suburbs at the headquarters of Sallie Mae, which funds student loans.

Eager for debate

Bush said he was eager to debate education with Gore this fall. "I believe I'm on the high ground," he said.

At the same time, Bush highlighted his disagreement with fellow Republican conservatives who think the federal government should have no role in education and would like to abolish the U.S. Education Department.

Bush said child illiteracy is a national tragedy that "requires a national response."

He cited statistics showing that two-thirds of fourth-graders in the nation's poorest schools could not read at their grade level in 1998.

The United States, he said, is increasingly "divided into two nations: one that reads and one that can't, and therefore one that dreams and one that can't."

Reading, he added, is key to learning and to success in today's high-tech world.

Tricky balancing act

Bush's education proposals have forced him into a tricky balancing act on the issue of local control of education, a principle strongly supported at the Republican grass roots.

The Texas governor says he favors local control, but conservative critics say he has undercut that claim by attaching federal strings to his initiatives.

Bush has called for the overhaul of federal aid to schools that serve poor students, so-called Title I schools. He would provide vouchers to parents of children at Title I schools that fail to measure up.

Standard tests, Head Start

But to determine which schools are failing, Bush would require students to take achievement tests that have been approved by the federal Education Department.

He would also shift the Head Start program into the Education Department, further expanding a federal agency that many conservatives detest.

In outlining his "Reading First" program yesterday, Bush added a new mandate. He said that "phonics must be an integral part" of teaching children to read.

Under the plan, states and school districts that apply for federal money must design reading programs that meet certain federal standards "based on scientific research," the campaign said.

Breakdown of spending

Most of the $1 billion annual cost of the Bush plan would go toward tutoring, after-school programs and summer school for an estimated 900,000 poor children in the first three years of elementary school.

About $95 million would go for testing the reading skills of poor children in kindergarten and first grade and for training teachers at those levels.

The Gore campaign contended in a statement that Bush's plan is a copy of a 1996 Clinton administration initiative, the Reading Excellence Program, which provides $260 million in federal grants to states for reading improvement.

But Bush's Texas reading plan predates the federal program, said David Denton, director of Reading and School Readiness at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

No major difference

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