KIRKWOOD, Mo. — President Bush said Tuesday he would ask Congress to triple spending for an elementary school reading program next year, as he opened a campaign to build support outside of Washington for his education and tax cut proposals.
The president visited two schools in the Midwest at the start of a two-day trip, defending his proposal to administer annual tests and hold schools accountable for the progress their students achieve.
Bush said the money was needed "to help retrain teachers" in reading instruction.
"There needs to be a lot of retraining, unfortunately," he said. "And while, and until, the teacher colleges get it right in terms of teaching curriculum that works, it seems like to me a useful role for government is to provide funds for teacher retraining."
The new money would be directed at students in kindergarten through third grade. It would increase federal funding from the $300 million allotted in the current fiscal year to $900 million in 2002 and would cost $5 billion over five years.
During the presidential campaign, Bush called for a $5-billion, five-year reading program for the early elementary grades. But he had not spelled out the specific annual funding, which will be part of the budget he sends to Congress on Feb. 28.
Although Bush left Washington last week for three quick trips to military bases and then spent several hours in Mexico on Friday, this trip is the first he has made as president to turn his campaign platform into policy.
He visited Ohio and Missouri on Tuesday and goes to Tennessee today. Those states all supported Bush in November, as did the three states he visited last week--Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia. Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, said there was "no particular rhyme or reason" to the itinerary.
Such trips are important, said Karen Hughes, Bush's counselor, "to build public support outside of Washington" for the president's domestic agenda, with the expectation that members of Congress will respond when the legislative agenda reaches them.
While the proposals and positions are almost word for word those that Bush offered on the campaign trail, she said that when they carry the imprimatur of the presidency, the public is "willing to listen . . . with a new ear."
At the Moline Elementary School in a suburban neighborhood outside St. Louis, Bush talked about the need to improve the reading curriculum. In Columbus, Ohio, his focus was on annual tests to measure the progress of schools and students.
In Kirkwood, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Bush sought support for his proposal to cut taxes by $1.6 trillion over 10 years.
"This is a plan that will require the people to speak up," he said, adding that he was trying to make his case "to the American people" with the ultimate goal of persuading Congress to pass it.
"I'm pitching myself every day," he said.
At Sullivant Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, the president sought to answer some of the complaints about frequent, standardized testing of students. Bush wants to make annual tests in reading and math a feature of grades three through eight.
Members of Congress are hearing opposition to the testing plan, he said, but he disagrees with such criticism. Foes have said that the federal government has no place in demanding greater testing of students in local schools. Also, from what Bush called the "no-testing crowd," there are dual complaints that teachers will build curriculum around preparation for the end-of-the-year assessments, depriving students of a broader learning experience, and that "you can't test because it's racist."
"What's racist," he said, is "not testing. What's racist, it seems like to me, is giving up on kids, just move them through and hope we get it right.
"The assessment system is never meant to punish. It is meant to provide a useful tool to both teacher and specialists and principals and superintendents to determine what works. Testing is a diagnostic tool, necessary to correct problems before it's too late."
Bush spoke at a 30-minute round-table meeting attended by about 50 people, including Ohio legislators and other political leaders. His wife, Laura, was at his side for most of the day.
While annual tests are a central element in Bush's education proposal, the initiative also emphasizes early reading programs and provides federal financial assistance to parents whose children are enrolled in schools that fail to educate the students. He and assistants, backing off the controversial proposals to provide government money to pay for private school tuitions, have said this aid could also pay for tutoring.
Congress could act on the measure as early as next month.
Recognizing the political connection, Bush brought four members of the Ohio congressional delegation with him. Turning to Republican Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi, who took part in the round-table discussion, he said: "Are you with me, Pat? Not to put any pressure on you. Just teasing."
Tiberi praised the program, prompting Bush to conclude: "That means yes."
The president spent Tuesday night in St. Louis, at the home of Republican contributor Stephen Brauer.