WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he is abandoning hope that private school tuition vouchers will survive his education reform package but said he expects support from both parties for a set of school bills now before Congress.
On the day the Senate voted 96-3 to take up the administration's reform plan, Bush said there is bipartisan support for making "opportunities" available to children in chronically failing schools - including paid transportation to other public schools and after-school tutoring funded by the federal government.
"I believe we're going to end up with a whole menu of opportunities," he said, "with the exception of public money for private schools."
Bush made his remarks in a wide-ranging White House discussion with a group of eight education writers from newspapers around the country, including The Sun. The discussion was his third "regional roundtable" with small groups of journalists.
It was Bush's first public concession on the hotly debated voucher issue. He said he expected voucher proposals to be submitted as amendments or as separate bills in the House and Senate. "I will support them," he said. "I haven't given up."
People who are "afraid of choice" aren't going to change their opinions, the president said. "I'm a realist. I understand that. It's not going to change my opinion, but it's not going to change the votes, either.
Vouchers have been a deeply divisive issue, with much of the education establishment and congressional Democrats staunchly opposed to them.
Bush, battling hay fever, talked passionately about education, a top priority of his administration. He said he would use his reform plan and his bully pulpit to improve education in America, "as we've done in Texas." In the meantime, he said, he and his wife, Laura, a former elementary school teacher, "can make an impact about teaching people the nobility of teaching."
Passage of his education reform proposals, Bush said, will be easier than enactment of his $1.35 trillion tax relief plan. The education proposals have more bipartisan support, he said.
He predicted that even Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democratic who is leading the fight for more federal spending on education, will come around. As of last weekend, the two parties were $6 billion apart in their proposals for financing the main federal elementary and secondary education program.
Bush vehemently defended his proposal for annual testing in grades three through eight, with schools to be rewarded if they improve in state testing - and subject to sanctions, including state takeover, if they do not. Parents at schools that failed three years in a row could use federal funds to transfer their children to other public schools or get after-school tutoring from such agencies as Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems, which he mentioned by name.
To hold states accountable for reaching high academic standards, he said, "we have to measure." He said the federal government would pay for the tests, which would have to be approved by the secretary of education.
Bush said his administration has budgeted $400 million for state testing. Senior education adviser Sandy Kress, who attended yesterday's session, said the money would be allocated primarily on the basis of population and that states such as Maryland that have well-developed testing programs would not be penalized.
Polling shows that most Americans think their own public schools are doing fine, Bush observed, "and all of a sudden what the accountability system does is kind of lift the veil, and realize that, oops, things aren't fine."
On other matters, Bush:
Endorsed the proposal of Education Secretary Rod Paige to appoint a "reading czar" who would give higher visibility to the first "R" and take "the best practices from around the country and help other districts and states understand what works."
"Rod hasn't brought that to me yet," Bush said of the reading czar post, noting that there were highly visible reading administrators in both Texas and Houston Independent School District, where Paige was superintendent.
G. Reid Lyon, director of reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is reportedly in line for the job. If Lyon were to be chosen, Bush said, "He would be fabulous. ... He's the guy who came down to Texas and helped us set up this research center for reading."
Said he would not abandon the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally sponsored test, as a backup measure of how the states are doing with their own tests. Bush acknowledged that some critics "are trying to undermine NAEP, but we won't let them."
Said he would "expand" Head Start, the major federal preschool program, "to become a reading program as much as anything else. To me the whole focus of Head Start ought to be education, providing children with the basics of reading."
Took a swipe at teacher education, saying that Texas state officials had to retrain teachers who were never prepared to teach reading.
"If you've done investigative reporting, which I'm sure you have," Bush said, "you'll find that teacher college curriculum has not changed. The state may be asking for a science-based reading curriculum, and the teacher colleges aren't teaching teachers how to teach that. So we have to retrain."
Called for a federal law, which he said his administration would submit to Congress, protecting teachers from federal civil rights suits if "reasonable standards of discipline and classroom conduct are met."
Threats of such suits, the president said, have been intimidating school districts and frightening teachers.