KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – President Bush, visiting a struggling inner-city school, said Thursday his upcoming budget will seek a $2 billion increase in federal funding for education programs aimed at poor students and those with disabilities.
"I'm comfortable in asking the Congress for more money in the '05 budget, which I will do," Bush said in a school gym crowded with adults after he watched some school children work on maps in a nearby classroom.
The president gave the small preview of a part of his 2005 budget request (search) that is likely to feature prominently in his re-election campaign. Education was the signature domestic issue of Bush's 2000 campaign.
For the 2004 fiscal year, Bush asked for $12.4 billion for Title I programs (search) that provide remedial education to poor children, which was a $1 billion increase over 2003, and $9.5 billion for state grants to serve children with disabilities, also a $1 billion increase over the previous year.
His 2005 budget, covering the fiscal year that begins in October, is to be presented to Congress early next month, and Bush said he would propose an extra $1 billion for each of those programs.
The announcement came at Knoxville's West View Elementary School, where Bush also celebrated - for the second time this week - the second anniversary of a landmark education bill. As the November elections approach, Bush is frequently touting the "No Child Left Behind Act" (search) he signed two years ago Thursday as a key achievement of his presidency.
With a record $99 million campaign bankroll on hand, the president also added another $2 million to his re-election account from a fund-raising lunch in Knoxville and a dinner he was scheduled to attend Thursday evening in Palm Beach, Fla. Elsewhere, Commerce Secretary Don Evans' appearance at a Burlington, Vt., reception kicked in $100,000 more.
The Knoxville Convention Center where GOP donors gathered to see Bush drew about 100 environmental activists and Iraq war opponents to the sidewalk outside.
The education law aims to improve teaching and student performance and close the education gap between rich and poor students by relying on required testing and penalties for schools whose students fail to meet goals. Schools could be required to let students transfer to other schools, provide private tutoring, or in cases of repeated failures, let the state take over.
The White House chose the West View school, which serves a diverse community and has a large share of poor students, as the day's backdrop because it meets federal achievement standards despite its challenges.
"As a result of strong accountability measures and good teachers and more funding, the results are positive," Bush said. "We're making a difference."
But Democrats complained ahead of Bush's trip that the anniversary was no time for celebrating, as it marks two years of Republicans selling short the bipartisan achievement that produced the new law. They and other critics say Republicans have failed to approve as much money as the law authorizes.
"Two years ago, it was right for President Bush to celebrate the promise of the No Child Left Behind Act. Today, it's disingenuous," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who formed an unlikely alliance with Bush to pass the law in 2001 but has since become one of the president's strongest critics on the topic. "It's way too soon for the `Mission Accomplished' banner on `No Child Left Behind.'"
For fiscal year 2004, for instance, the law authorized $18.5 billion in Title I funding - far more than Bush's $12.4 billion request.
But the White House dismissed the complaints of underfunding. Bush cited growing spending on education, with the federal government "sending checks, in record amounts I might add."
"For the first time the federal government is spending more money and now asking for results," he said.
It was his eighth trip to Tennessee, where he won by a small margin over Al Gore in the former vice president's home state.
Later, Bush was to make his 18th trip as president to Florida, the state that put him in the White House.
With no challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush plans to raise $150 million to $170 million in all. He raised a record $130.8 million last year and, after campaign expenses, closed 2003 with $99 million.
That means that what Bush spent last year - only a fraction of what he collected - is almost as much as the roughly $40 million total raised by his closest challenger in the money chase, Howard Dean.