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Bush calls education 'civil rights issue of our time'


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend under way, President Bush on Saturday called education "the great civil rights issue of our time" and took the opportunity to highlight his agenda for change.

Meanwhile, in their weekly radio address, Democrats continued to criticize the president's handling of the economy. While stressing their support for his leadership of the war in Afghanistan and his response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats have said Bush and congressional Republicans need to do more to help workers laid off since the September attacks.

The debate over the economy has led to some of the sharpest partisan feuding in Washington in recent months. With the nation in a recession, the issue could be key in November's midterm election in which control of both houses of Congress is at stake.

But Bush chose to focus on a recent bipartisan accomplishment -- the passage of broad changes to federal education law -- in his Saturday address.

"We have overcome the institutionalized bigotry that Dr. King fought," Bush said. "Now our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life."

The president said the recently signed education overhaul, which Republicans and Democrats backed, emphasizes reading as a first step to learning, making sure teachers are properly trained and installing an "accountability system" to ensure children receive the education they need.

But more remains to be done, Bush said.

"In my next budget, I will propose an increase of $1 billion for the federal program that aids disadvantaged schoolchildren," Bush said, noting that the funding would be in addition to an 18 percent hike in last year's budget.

The money would go to a federal program for special needs children called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Bush said.

Many educators and lawmakers, especially Democrats, were chagrined that increased IDEA funding was not part of the $26.5 billion education overhaul package approved by Congress in December and signed into law by Bush this month. The high cost of providing education to children with disabilities is straining school district budgets across the country.

Last week, Education Secretary Rod Paige convened the first meeting of a presidential commission that will address the issue of special education by proposing that it become "an integral part of an education system that expects all children to reach their full potential," Bush said.

"We must have high expectations for children who are more difficult to teach or who have fallen behind," Bush said. "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would accept no less than an equal concern for every child in America, and neither will my administration."

Monday is the official King holiday, marking the slain civil rights leader's birthday. Bush will host King's family at the White House, while first lady Laura Bush plans to visit King's hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.

Democrats critical of president's handling of economy

In their weekly radio address, Democrats said they support Bush's efforts in the war against terrorism but fault the president for failing to jump-start the economy to help the 8 million Americans out of work.

Democrats critical of president's handling of economy

"As we have since the morning of September 11, the Democratic Party continues to stand side by side with President Bush and our armed forces in the war against terrorism," said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic national chairman. "We Democrats also stand with the working men and women of this nation as they struggle to make ends meet."

McAuliffe's comments came as the Democratic National Committee convened for its winter meeting on plans for the 2004 presidential election.

In his upcoming State of the Union address, Bush "has to explain what he plans to do to reignite this economy, which has now been in recession since March," McAuliffe said.

"President Bush will also have to explain how he plans to put us back on a fiscally responsible path toward a balanced budget," he said.

"Budgets aren't about numbers; they're about priorities," McAuliffe said. "Democrats looked at the surplus and said we need to protect older Americans by saving Social Security first. Republicans looked at the surplus and decided we should dole out corporate welfare first.

"The flag for which our military is fighting must not symbolize a nation paralyzed by debt and smothered by joblessness ... a nation that fails to protect its elderly or safeguard its natural resources."




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