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Bush pushes for school vouchers

President Bush
President Bush: "We must challenge schools with higher standards, and arm parents with better options."  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush told an intimate audience in Washington Thursday that he stands behind his campaign pledge to give parents more ability to remove their children from unsafe or academically inadequate public schools.

Such ability, he said, could be in the form of school vouchers, a hot-button issue among Democrats and some educators.

Bush told those assembled in an Eisenhower Executive Office Building auditorium he was "strongly committed" to shifting federal money directly to parents if the schools their children attend cannot meet the standards set by local officials.

Read about the next school voucher case before U.S. Supreme Court (FindLaw)

"I campaigned vigorously on this idea, and I think it is right," he said.

That was somewhat more direct than what he said Wednesday as he launched a reinvigorated push to persuade Congress to support his agenda to overhaul the nation's public school systems.

He told a middle school audience in Concord, North Carolina, that he wanted to avoid some of the so-called choice issues, saying that choices such as vouchers would prompt an extended, spirited debate in Congress.

Vouchers, or cash disbursements to parents of children attending schools rated as failures, could be used to enroll those children in another school, public or private.

Democrats oppose the idea, saying such payments would siphon sorely needed money from the schools that may need it the most.

Bush's proposal would divert to a child's parents -- at least on paper -- federal money that would have gone to a school system for the same child.

When he campaigned for the presidency last year, Bush suggested that could come to $1,500 per year for parents to enroll their children on another public school, a charter school, or a private establishment.

The federal government supplies roughly 6 percent of the money localities spend on their schools every year.

"If a failing school does not change after a period of time," Bush said, "parents should be able to take the federal money attributable to their child ... and make a choice of any school they want to send that child to."

"We need to empower parents by giving them more options and influence," he said.

The Bush education overhaul agenda is based on his insistence on local control over curriculum and spending. Bush has called for a spending regime that would allow localities to spend federal money as they see fit.

But Bush assigns a price to that freedom, saying that localities must devise tests to determine on a regular basis how individual students are performing.

That data would be compiled to rate school and district performance, and schools found to be deficient would be encouraged to improve, or risk losing federal funds.

"Effective education reform requires pressure from above and competition from below," the president said Thursday.

"We must challenge schools with higher standards, and arm parents with better options."

Bush said he would work in coming months to improve the financial outlook for charter schools, saying many of them were changing the face of public education for the better.

"We will assist with startup costs, facility costs and other needs associated with high quality schools," he said.

He also said schools that do not improve internal safety for their students could face sharp declines in their student population if, as he would like, parents are allowed to transfer their children. The states, he said, would be responsible for certifying how safe their schools are.

"Students in unsafe schools must be given the option to attend another public school," he said.

Bush leaves Washington later in the day for his Crawford, Texas, ranch, where he will spend the extended Easter weekend.

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