RESTON, Va. — Calling childhood illiteracy a "national emergency," Texas Gov. George W. Bush unveiled a five-year, $5-billion proposal Tuesday to ensure that all American children can read by the end of third grade.
Bush's reading initiative would provide federal money to states to diagnose reading problems in kindergarten and first grade. It would pay for training kindergarten and first-grade teachers in reading instruction. And it would fund research-based intervention programs, such as tutoring or summer school, for children with reading problems.
As part of the effort, which the Bush campaign figures would affect 920,000 largely poor children nationwide, the reading initiative would also push states to create ongoing reading assessment tests for students in grades three to eight.
And it would allow parents to pull their children from schools that accept federal money but still fail to teach children to read after three years; such parents could use federal vouchers to send their children to private schools.
Bush unveiled his plan in the fourth major education speech of his White House campaign, part of a continuing effort to make the issue a cornerstone of his candidacy and to appeal to centrist voters, particularly women. He also used the occasion to paint strong differences between himself, Democratic opponent Al Gore and conservative Republicans, who would leave education policy for the states to decide.
"This plan is different," Bush said at a forum of Asian American business leaders. "It's different from my opponent's. It's different from the [Clinton] administration's. And it's different from those who say there is no federal role for education."
The plan, which would give states some latitude in choosing diagnostic tools and intervention efforts, "is different from those who would throw money into schools without reforming them," he continued.
Eschewing his regular stump speech lines--"I don't want to be the federal superintendent of schools," and "I'm not running for national principal"--Bush told the group that he will "spend more on schools, but I will expect more from our schools."
Education experts applauded Bush's vision when asked about his plan Tuesday, but they also questioned some of the fine print.
Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, called Bush's effort "laudatory," but he said that there are some "odd parts" to it.
"Do we need a program like this? Absolutely," he said. "It's exciting to see the federal government weighing in to an area as important as this. . . . [But] one would ask, 'Why not just make a heavy investment in preschool?' Don't wait until the kids are broken. . . . This is a repair program. It makes more sense to prepare them."
Universal preschool for all 4-year-olds is one of the cornerstones of Vice President Gore's education proposal. The two presidential candidates have been duking it out regularly over school issues since the primary season basically ended in mid-March. Both see education as a way to attract moderate voters, particularly women.
Early polls show Bush running even with Gore on education issues, a traditional Democratic strength.
Gore has proposed using $115 billion of the expected federal budget surplus over 10 years--in addition to current spending--to fund universal preschool and to continue the Clinton administration's class-size reduction efforts. He also wants to triple the number of charter schools and expand Head Start.
"Bush's plan does not address big issues," such as preschool, expansion and improvement of aging schools and teacher hiring, says Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman.
In addition, he argued, the administration already "set the goal of helping children learn to read by the end of third grade in 1996 in the America Reads Challenge. Bush's idea of leadership is to follow up on good ideas that have already been enacted."
Under the Bush plan, which the Texan calls "Reading First," the federal government would spend $5 million annually for five years to diagnose an estimated 1.64 million disadvantaged children. It would spend $90 million annually to train teachers in reading instruction.
The biggest chunk of the initiative would go to direct intervention--at least $900 million a year, or about $1,100 a year for every one of the 920,000 children that the campaign's education experts estimate will need extra help. Bush aides said the money would come from the projected federal budget surplus.
"With this kind of resources, more than three-quarters of these kids will be helped and remediated," says Margaret La Montagne, Bush's education policy advisor, who described the plan as based on a Texas program.
Bush himself admits that his push for more federal education funding is a far cry from the Republican mantra of just four years ago--dismantle the federal Department of Education--a position that many conservatives still hold.