FALLS CHURCH, Va. - President Bush said yesterday that he wants to do for America's high schools what he did for the nation's elementary schools during his first term.
To some it was a bold, forward-looking initiative. Others took it as a threat.
The Bush plan calls for expanding the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools. The act has mandated standardized testing, developed by each state, to measure school performance. Federal funds are linked to performance, with bonuses for high achievement, and students in low-performing schools can transfer to other campuses.
"Testing will make sure that diploma is not merely a sign of endurance, but the mark of a young person ready to succeed," Bush said in a gymnasium speech at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, a Washington suburb.
Bush's high-school initiative includes $1.5 billion for programs for students who fall below grade level.
Some congressional Democrats who backed Bush's No Child Left Behind Act for lower grades later accused the president of short-changing the measure by billions of dollars. Yesterday, those Democrats - including Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - said reform efforts not backed by money are a sham.
"I welcome President Bush's remarks today on improving our high schools," said Kennedy. "But it's clear that unless we fund the reforms under the No Child Left Behind Act for earlier grades and younger children, what we do in high schools will matter far less."
"It's time for the White House to realize that America cannot expand opportunity and embrace the future on a tin-cup education budget," Kennedy said in a speech at the National Press Club.
Bush's event was the latest in a barnstorming tour in which he is promoting the domestic agenda he will ask Congress to approve. Last week, he went to Michigan to push for caps on medical malpractice lawsuits.
On Tuesday, he pushed his plan to overhaul Social Security at a forum in Washington, a topic that will be center stage again when Bush travels to Florida tomorrow.
Those topics got brief mention here as Bush focused on high schools.
"The theory of this law is straightforward," he said of No Child Left Behind, "that in return for federal dollars, we are asking for results."
"I view the results in our high schools as a warning and a call to action," Bush said, noting that only 68 percent of ninth-graders graduate on schedule.
At the heart of the plan is a testing system that will measure student achievement in reading and math in the ninth, 10th and 11th grades.
Caroline Kory, a Stuart High School senior who listened to Bush's speech, said she respects the president but thinks he does not understand the real world of education.
"I'm worried about a lot of testing because I know from past experience that teachers do teach to the test, and that the extra money that is necessary from the federal government hasn't been coming through, especially at Stuart where we have a lot of non-English speakers," she said.
Overall, Bush was enthusiastically received by the crowd, which included faculty, students, parents and local political backers of the president.
"I am in line with what the president says, which is we don't know how we are doing unless we measure how we are doing," said David Kennedy of Falls Church, a Bush supporter who has two children in elementary school.
Kennedy offered a high-school plan of his own, a system in which eighth-graders would be promised a government-paid college education if they get into a university.
"Surely we have reached a stage in America where we can say it and mean it: Cost must never again be a bar to college admissions," Kennedy said, adding that his plan could be accomplished "without adding a single penny to the deficit" by revising student loan practices.