Bush: Let's Talk Vouchers

President George W. Bush speaks during his first radio address in the Oval Ofiice of the White House, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2001.
President Bush, in the first radio address of his administration, indicated a willingness Saturday to listen to opponents of his school voucher proposal. Promoting his education package, he pledged support for lagging schools while demanding better results.

"My plan will give every failing school a fair chance to improve," Mr. Bush said, promoting proposals sent last week to Congress. "But there will be a deadline, a moment of truth when parents are given better options and their children are given a way out."

Democrats said they have the votes to block the president's most contested idea — federally funded vouchers for children in the worst performing schools that would pay for private tuition or tutoring.

And Mr. Bush signaled possible flexibility on that part of his education plan.

"There are some honest difference of opinion in Congress about what form these options should take," he said. "I have my own plan which would help children in persistently failing schools to go to another public, private or charter school. Others suggest different approaches, and I am willing to listen."

"But all reform must be based on a principle," he added. "Children and parents who have had only bad choices need better choices. And it is my duty as president to help them."

Mr. Bush also is seeking "accountability for results, clear incentives for excellence, and clear consequences for failure."

Responding for Democrats, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said he is glad Bush shares the goal of improving schools. But he assailed the idea of allowing parents to use federal money to pay for private schooling.

"Vouchers drain funds from failing schools at the very moment when schools need these resources the most; this could leave children behind," Gephardt said.

"We hope President Bush will work with both parties on legislation to invest in and build up public schools and give every child the opportunity he or she deserves," Gephardt said.

The president will get another chance to listen to his political opposition when he attends a policy meeting of Senate Democrats at the Library of Congress on Friday. The White House also made clear that if arrangements can be made, the new Republican president also would attend a similar session being held by House Democrats.

In the radio address, Mr. Bush also sought to increase spending for reading instruction, create rigorous new tests, and free states from red tape.

He pledged support for schools that need help in meeting new, high standards. "Children and parents who have had only bad choices must have new choices," he said. "We need to aim high but we must also be realistic."

"His plan threatens our prosperity and could return us to the big deficits of the 1980s," Gephardt said. It was the first time a Democrat had responded to the traditional weekly presidential radio address since 993, when Bush's father was in office.

"Remember that we had a huge tax cut in 1981 that produced massive deficits and high interest rates. The high interest rates weakened investment and caused slower growth," Gephardt said. "We can not repeat this mistake."

Mr. Bush wants change to be the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which Congress must renew before it expires this year. Including the program for low-income youngsters, the education act also supports teacher training, bilingual instruction and classroom technology upgrades.

The president's weekly radio address is a descendant of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. It was resurrected by Richard Nixon and perfected by Ronald Reagan and used by Bill Clinton throughout his administration.

It now belongs to Mr. Bush and he plans to take full advantage of the unfiltered six or seven minutes each Saturday.

Clinton often delivered his radio messages live before an invited audience but Bush taped his first address in the Oval Office on Saturday morning with only technicians present.

Press secretary Ari Fleischer said that is likely the way Bush will handle future broadcasts.

Later Saturday, Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, were attending the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, a closed-door event featuring hundreds of Washington's top power brokers from both political parties.