Bush says he'll `listen' on voucher issue

President hopes to avoid a drag on education plan


WASHINGTON - In the first weekly radio address of his presidency, George W. Bush signaled anew yesterday that he might be willing to budge on the most contentious dimension of his education plan: federally financed vouchers that students in failing public schools could use at private institutions.

Bush cast that idea as an effort to give "better options" to the parents of students in schools where student performance was consistently poor. But he then immediately acknowledged that there were "some honest differences of opinion in Congress about what form these options should take."

"Others suggest different approaches," Bush said, "and I'm willing to listen."

Those remarks were the latest in a series of indications from Bush and officials in his administration over the first week of his presidency that he was not willing to have his education initiatives live or die by the outcome of a heated debate over vouchers, a word that Bush never uses.

But Bush said yesterday that he would not compromise on the guiding principle of his plan.

"Children and parents who have had only bad choices need better choices, and it is my duty as president to help them," he said.

In delivering the radio address, which aides said he intends to do every week, Bush was continuing an intermittent tradition among presidents over the past three decades.

His predecessor, Bill Clinton, relished the opportunity to talk directly to Americans without any editing or interruption by reporters or commentators.

Bush taped yesterday's remarks at about 8:45 a.m. in the Oval Office, aides said. The address, broadcast at 10:06 a.m., lasted about five minutes and dwelled entirely on the theme that the Bush administration had chosen for his first week in office: improving education. Discussing that goal, Bush expressed concern for minority and underprivileged children.

"Our country must offer every child, no matter what his or her background or accent, a fair start in life, with a quality education," Bush said.

He also presented the issue as one of bipartisan concern and bipartisan agreement, which is one reason that Bush, elected by the narrowest of margins in the Electoral College, made it the focus of his first week.

In the customary response to the president's address, the House minority leader, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, talked just as emphatically about the need for bipartisan cooperation, saying that Democrats wanted it.

But Gephardt's remarks included hints of where that comity might fray. He called for passage of a bill to overhaul campaign finance laws that Bush opposes. He warned against a tax cut as sweeping as the one that Bush has proposed.

Additionally, Gephardt said, "We believe that vouchers, which are in President Bush's plan, do not further the plan for improving public schools."

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