"You're watching the principles of democracy in action," Mr. Bush told a fifth-grade class at Vandenberg Extended Year School, as reporters pelted him with questions about what he would say to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in their meeting Tuesday.
Mr. Bush said he was "disappointed" in Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and restated his call for Arafat to lead.
"He has disappointed me," Mr. Bush declared. "He must lead. He must show the world that he believes in peace. We have laid out conditions for all parties in order to achieve peace."
But the White House remains adamant that Israel must negotiate with Arafat, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller.
The Vandenberg students, and another room of fourth- and fifth-graders, are learning about core democratic principles like equality, truth, popular sovereignty and diversity — very much a hands-on lesson in this school, where each year 30 to 50 new pupils who enroll are recent immigrants and speak little English.
"It's the greatness of our country to share values and to be diverse, and to welcome people from all backgrounds into America," Mr. Bush said. He described the nation's public school system as one "that can be incredibly hopeful, and it's one where, as a result of schools making the right decisions, people of all backgrounds do get educated."
The president came here to promote the education reform package he signed in January, in hopes of encouraging states and districts to implement it. The legislation includes an array of "accountability" safeguards, and requires annual state tests in reading and mathematics for every child in grades three through eight, beginning in the 2005-06 school year. Schools will also have to test students in science in three grades.
Mr. Bush said the nation's educators "have a responsibility to challenge the status quo," but that burden is not borne by educators alone — government, parents and business leaders must rise to the occasion too, he said.
"All of us must assume responsibilities if we expect the best for every child," he said.
Mr. Bush was joined by Education Secretary Rod Paige, who is undertaking a 25-city tour through the summer to highlight the new education law.
Public schools where scores fail to improve two years in a row could receive more federal aid, but if scores still fail to improve, low-income students could receive tutoring or transportation to another public school.
Mr. Bush wants to see that programs at home — some popular, some divisive — are not lost in the diplomatic shuffle as he steps more deeply into the Mideast crisis, aides say.
This week will see three days in which the president focuses on the education law and on a proposal to tighten welfare requirements.
Mr. Bush's travel this week has a political component. The three states he visits — Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio — will be crucial to his 2004 re-election campaign. He is headlining fund-raisers along the way.
Also this week, Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet Wednesday with King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House.