President Bush began the election year Monday by defending his education reforms against criticism by Democrats seeking to replace him, and adding to his campaign funds, which now exceed $120 million.
“We can have excellence in every single classroom across this country,” Bush said at the Pierre Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis, which he cited as a model for his No Child Left Behind legislation.
Bush acknowledged that reading improvements at Laclede began before the bill was enacted two years ago, but said the school embodied his principles of accountability and testing.
Democratic presidential candidates stepped up their attacks on the bill, saying it is inflexible, unfairly punishes weak schools and is underfunded.
“This is simply federal bureaucracy run amok,” former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a leading Democratic candidate, said in a telephone news conference. “It has the effect of making education worse in America, not better.”
In his first political trip of 2004, Bush will also hold a campaign fund-raiser which is expected to yield $2.8 million and add to a record for a primary season in which the president has has no Republican challenger.
Bush total 'well more' than $120 million
The Bush campaign this week is to release fund-raising results for the three months ending Dec. 31. A campaign official said the total since Bush began fund-raising last June would be “well more” than $120 million, which far outstrips any of Bush’s potential Democratic challengers.
The president is casting education reform as a centerpiece of his “compassionate conservative” agenda targeting socially moderate voters. He called education “the number one domestic priority.”
But Democrats seeking a domestic issue against Bush have seized on dissatisfaction among some teachers groups and state and local school systems, which say Bush has failed to spend the money needed to meet stringent standards under the bill. Schools that fail to meet the bill’s standards for student progress eventually risk losing funding.
“He (Bush) did not just break the spirit of his promises ... he broke the obligations of the federal government,” said Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a Democratic presidential candidate. Gephardt’s home state, which Bush won by three percentage points in 2000, is a key target in Bush’s re-election effort.
Kennedy vows to fight for funds
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Bush ally in passing the legislation but a major critic of its implementation, vowed to fight for more money.
Bush defended himself against the charges, saying he had sharply increased education funding and the testing requirements were needed to identify students needing help.
“(The) federal government’s a source of money. It’s now a source of inspiration. It’s a source of measurement. But it’s up to the local people to really make it work,” Bush said.
Bush is expected to seek increases of $1 billion each for education of disabled children and for schools in low-income areas in his 2005 budget request next month, a congressional source said.