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Bush Defends Education Initiatives

VAN BUREN, Ark. President Bush today defiantly defended his administration's marquee education program, calling the embattled No Child Left Behind Act a historic policy change that has improved learning across the nation.

Bush spoke during a visit to a junior high school in the heart of northwestern Arkansas, a respite from the escalating scandal over the abuse of prisoners in Iraq. It was also a signal to voters in this battleground region that the president does not intend to let the U.S. travails in Iraq cloud the domestic achievements his advisors think are key to wooing swing voters.

"We're not backing down," Bush said of his education initiative, which became law two years ago and established federal testing requirements in elementary and middle schools to measure achievement and establish greater accountability. "I do not care how much pressure they put on the process, I'm not changing my mind."

The law was passed with strong support from both parties. But it has been bitterly opposed by teachers unions and became a major target of Democratic presidential candidates during the primary campaign as the candidates wooed the unions' backing.

Democrats have chastised Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress for failing to provide enough money to carry out the law's goals, while some conservatives have accused the president of establishing a big government approach to education.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, last week unveiled his own $20-billion education plan that he says would do more to enhance accountability by using federal money to increase teacher salaries, weed out bad teachers, and promote stricter testing.

But defending his approach today, Bush tried to thread a rhetorical needle, assuring the audience of Butterfield Junior High School teachers and students and residents that he believes in local control, but that the federal government is carrying its share of the load.

If his budget requests are approved, he said, he will have increased overall education spending by nearly 50% since 2001 including $112 million more for Arkansas schools than the state was getting four years ago.

He bragged about higher reading and math scores, telling his audience, to applause, that Arkansas is above the national average.

And addressing critics who say standardized tests force instructors to "teach to the test," Bush said the results still lead to higher achievement.

— Peter Wallsten
Los Angeles Times


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