WASHINGTON – President Bush announced plans Saturday to devote an extra $2 billion to federal programs for special education students and the nation's poorest schools. Such a commitment, he said, is in keeping with the philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr.
Bush used his weekly radio address to link the federal King holiday to his efforts to improve education, saying the "institutionalized bigotry" that King fought has been vanquished, and it is now time to take on less tangible struggles, such as ensuring equal education.
"Our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life," Bush said. "That is why education is the great civil rights issue of our time.
"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would accept no less than an equal concern for every child in America, and neither will my administration," Bush said.
Earlier this month, Bush signed into law a far-reaching education bill that requires annual reading and math tests for children in grades three through eight beginning in the 2005-06 school year. It also mandates that schools bolster teacher qualifications and develop periodic "report cards" ranking their standardized test scores with other area schools.
Under the new law, schools must improve reading and math proficiency among students and close performance gaps between wealthy and poor students and between white and minority students.
Bush said he will propose, in his 2003 budget plan, a $1 billion increase in funding for federal Title I programs for disadvantaged students. He will also propose a $1 billion increase in assistance for "special needs" children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
"But we want these new dollars to carry to special education the same spirit of reform and accountability we have brought to other education programs," Bush said. "We must have high expectations for children who are more difficult to teach or who have fallen behind."
The White House said the money announced Saturday represents a 10 percent increase in Title I funding and a 13 percent increase in IDEA funding over the previous year.
The president said he planned to hold a ceremony at the White House on Monday to commemorate the federal King holiday. Among those scheduled to attend are King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and one of her two daughters, the White House said.
First lady Laura Bush will go to Atlanta, King's hometown, Bush said. She is scheduled to speak at a service at King's church, Ebenezer Baptist.
Bush was to sign a holiday proclamation that praised King as "a modern American hero whose leadership rallied people of all races to rise up against injustice," and said the holiday in honor of his birthday takes on greater importance because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"Dr. King's unwavering commitment to nonviolent means of bringing the people of our nation together provided a foundation for healing and trust. That trust brought us through our recent tragedy as we reached out to each other without regard to race or religion."
In the Democratic radio response, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe called the Sept. 11 attacks "an act of unspeakable brutality that must be avenged," and agreed that the nation should rally around Bush's efforts against terrorism.
Looking forward to this fall's congressional elections, McAuliffe said: "It's true that the president's approval ratings are high. But we found out in last year's elections that the president's personal appeal doesn't help other Republicans, and doesn't suggest a national embrace of Republican ideas."
He said Democrats intend to spread the message this year that "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."
The Rev. Al Sharpton expressed skepticism Saturday about Bush's educational goals. In Washington for a forum on King's legacy, the activist said: "I do not think (King) would be supportive of privatization at the level of privatization that the Bush administration has supported. He would be calling for public education as a right for everybody."