Emphasizing the softer side of his agenda, President Bush went back to school Monday, touting rising test scores as proof that his education law is working.
Bush marked the fourth anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act by visiting North Glen Elementary, a suburban Baltimore school that has made big gains in reading and math. It was a reminder of a major bipartisan success that Bush scored early in his White House tenure, far from the wrangling over war, domestic spying and other matters overshadowing his second term.
"We have a moral obligation to make sure every child gets a good education," Bush told a supportive audience in the school gym. "It's a moral obligation to make sure that we herald success and challenge failure. It's not right to have a system that quits on kids."
The law aims to ensure that all children can read and do math at grade level by 2014, which requires unprecedented focus on the education of poor and minority children.
States are under orders to test students, improve teacher quality and provide information to parents, and schools face penalties if they receive federal aid face but do not improve.
Congressional Democrats have stood by those core elements of the law, which is up for review in 2007. But bipartisan support has eroded, largely over money. Bush has overseen record school spending, but Democrats say it is far less than schools need to succeed.
"Unfortunately, President Bush still doesn't realize that No Child Left Behind was a promise, not a political slogan," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a key backer of the law.
The bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures has also issued a scathing rebuke of the law, calling it a coercive act that sets unreachable goals. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has tried to temper those concerns, changing enforcement of the law to give states more flexibility in how they measure student progress and teacher quality.
Bush noted that scores are rising on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test considered a report card for the nation. In 2005, fourth-graders and eighth-graders posted their highest-ever math scores, and black and Hispanic children narrowed their achievement gap with whites in both math and reading.
"The system is working. That's what's important for people to understand," Bush said.
But the president did not mention some of the test's less flattering results. The fourth-grade reading performance was essentially flat, and in eighth grade, reading scores dropped.
Heading toward his State of the Union speech, Bush this year is expected to renew his campaign to expand No Child Left Behind in high school. The law requires testing yearly in grades three to eight, and once in high school. Bush wants Congress to require annual math and reading tests in grades nine to 11 as a way to measure whether students are learning.
Bush seemed happy to be back on a campus Monday. Children pressed their faces against the classroom windows until his helicopter arrived, then waved frantically.
Bush stopped in a fifth-grade class, accompanied by Spellings and first lady Laura Bush. He briefly took over the role of teacher, asking: "Anybody read more than they watch TV?" When some of the kids nodded that they did, he said: "That's good. That's really important."