The House and Senate, hoping to offer President Bush an education package by early September, will keep staff members working through the monthlong congressional vacation to forge a compromise between dueling bills.

Bush on Wednesday urged the lawmakers to work quickly. And he invited congressional negotiators to a meeting at the White House on Thursday.

"We're coming down to the wire," he said in a speech to the National Urban League. "We've got to finish strong and make sure the accountability measures are right."

Lawmakers on Wednesday ratified an agreement on several minor proposals, including spending for migrant and homeless students. But they have yet to agree on the most fundamental issues, including how much money schools will get and how the Education Department will define "failing schools." The amount of federal dollars will be determined by how well students perform on standardized tests.

The House and Senate have taken months to approve separate versions of the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides most of the federal money for public education through high school. Negotiators are now working out differences on spending and accountability.

The pace of negotiations will mean little to most students as they begin school in the fall, since the money wouldn't be distributed until next July. Most of the policies aren't due to take effect until 2002 at the earliest.

Both the House and Senate bills require that schools annually test students in math and reading in grades three through eight and once in high school. Students at schools in which scores don't improve could use federal money for tutoring or for transportation to another public school.

All schools would get more flexibility in their use of federal funds, and under the Senate bill a small number of states and school districts could compete for a pilot program giving them even fewer restrictions.

In the House version, school districts could use up to half their federal money without supervision, with two districts per state eligible for a program that would free schools from virtually all spending restrictions.

The measure's cost remains a hang-up. With a $33 billion price tag, the Senate bill spends more than Bush or the House wants. The House legislation would give public schools $24 billion.

In his speech, Bush called the failure of many urban schools "a great and continuing scandal" but pressed lawmakers to give those schools ample time to turn themselves around. Bush wants schools to be given three years to improve.