Following WednesdayÂ's public endorsement of a farm aid package that won him the support of half the Iowa Legislature, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has revisited his primary political passion: Education.
In a draft of his back-to-school address laying out his first education proposals of the 2000 campaign, Bush says federal money withheld from schools that repeatedly fail state testing standards would follow students to better public schools, charter schools, tutoring, or "whatever option parents choose," including private schools.
He decries federal education policies that "cheat poor children," and says his administration would require states to test disadvantaged students, strip federal funds from the worst-scoring schools, and allow private schools to get the public money.
Wading into the school voucher debate, Bush said in the draft, "Federal money will no longer flow to failure."
Bush advisers expect the proposal to draw criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, a result they say would only underscore the Texas governor's ability to find a middle ground that balances conservative principles with moderate policies and rhetoric.
Though aides said Bush intentionally avoided the politically charged term "school vouchers," his proposal would in fact pump federal money into private schools -- a concept Democrats say would hurt the public school system. Requiring tests is not popular among conservative Republicans who favor local control, though Bush was careful to say he would leave it up to states to choose and administer the tests.
"A president is not a federal principal, and I will not be one," Bush said. "The federal government must be humble enough to stay out of the day-to-day operation of local schools, wise enough to give states and school districts more authority and freedom, and strong enough to require proven performance in return. When we spend federal money, we want results, especially when it comes to disadvantaged children."
Bush is proposing a dramatic shift in the federal Title I program, which spends $7.7 billion a year to help educate poor children. The Education Department wants to increase the program to $8 billion to serve 12 million students in 44,000 schools.
Under Bush's plan, every school getting Title I money would be required to test its impoverished students on basic academics each year. A warning would be issued to schools that fail to make progress toward the state standards. After three years of no progress, the Title I money would be matched with other federal education money and given to the state.