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Bush Speech Focuses on Economy, Not Education

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WASHINGTON--While acknowledging education's importance in improving the nation's competitiveness, President Bush last week proposed no major new education initiatives in a State of the Union Message that focused on economic policy.

One new education proposal was included in the Administration's budget: a $500 million education voucher plan that would give "low and middle income" parents federal and state funds to enroll their children in private or public schools.

The proposal included in the budget is bolder than the $200-million choice plan the Administration offered last year as part of its America 2000 education strategy. And public-education advocates said last week that it was a peculiar proposal to make just a week after the Senate decisively rejected a much more modest $30-million demonstration project.

"Maybe they had the budget books all printed up, and it was too late to take it out," said Michael Casserly, the acting executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "I really don't understand their thinking."

But John W. Sanders, the vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools, suggested that the Administration intends to use the proposal as a campaign issue, arguing that opinion polls show growing support for choice.

"The handwriting is on the wall about family choice," Mr. Sanders said. "The Senate is out of sync with the American people on this."

The Senate vote came as part of deliberations on a Democratic alternative to America 2000. Both that legislation and a companion House bill bear only passing resemblance to the Administration's proposal. (See story, page 21 .)

A plug for America 2000 was Mr. Bush's only significant reference to education in his State of the Union speech.

"We must be the world's leader in education," Mr. Bush said. "We must revolutionize America's schools."

"My America 2000 education strategy will help us reach that goal," he continued. "My plan will give parents more choice, give teachers more flexibility, and help communities create new American schools."

"Thirty states across the nation have established America 2000 programs," the President said. "Hundreds of cities and towns have joined in. Now Congress must join this great movement. Pass my proposals for new American schools."

Establishing innovative schools would be one of several options for states and school districts receiving funds under the legislation pending in the Congress.

But lawmakers would limit the program to public schools, while the Administration sought to make private entities eligible for start-up funds in a wide-open competition.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander struck a defiant note in speaking with reporters last week, indicating that the President may view choice as a good campaign issue.

"This is a big, bold proposal by the President," Mr. Alexander said in referring to the voucher plan included in the Administration's budget. "He's dead serious about it. We'll keep fighting as long as we're here for radical change, and eventually the Congress will come along."

"You need to get used to this and so does the Congress," Mr. Alexander said in response to a suggestion that the Administration is pushing an old agenda that has already been rejected. "We're not going to come up with a new set of zany ideas each year."

Choice Plan Detailed

The Administration's original choice proposal would have rewarded school districts that set up choice plans that included private schools.

As described by Mr. Alexander and in budget documents, the new plan would provide grants to "states and localities" of up to $500 per "low- and middle-income child" participating.

That money and state matching funds would be used to give parents vouchers of up to $1,000 per child "for use at any public or private school."

The Secretary said state and local officials would decide what the cutoff income level would be.

He also said he expects that "much of the money will end up in public schools," as parents choose to use the vouchers to change public schools rather than to opt out of the public system.

Mr. Alexander has termed the program a "G.I. bill for children," a reference to the argument that parents should be able to use grants for precollegiate schooling the way veterans and other students use federal aid for postsecondary study.

The President's speech, however, was firmly focused on the nation's economic troubles, and the Democratic response, delivered by Representative Thomas S. Foley of Washington, the Speaker of the House, did not mention education at all.

Economic Plans

Mr. Bush tried to recapture the good will he enjoyed after the conclusion of the Persian Gulf war by calling on Americans to win the economic fight in similar fashion.

Applying to the recession the same phrase he used in announcing the U.S. response to the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the President intoned: "This will not stand."

Mr. Bush issued a challenge to the Congress to pass an economic-recovery package by March 20.

Mr. Bush's economic proposals include increasing by $500 the income-tax deduction for dependent children and making interest on student loans tax deductible.

In addition, he recommended an array of tax breaks for investment and real-estate purchases, renewed his call for a cut in the capital-gains tax, and proposed that families be given tax credits for health-insurance costs.

He also proposed $50 billion in defense cuts between 1992 and 1997--although the cuts are from the Administration's projected spending levels and would actually allow small increases over current spending.

"These cuts are deep, and you must know my resolve," the President said. "This deep and no deeper."

"To do less would be insensible to progress, but to do more would be ignorant of history," he said.

Mr. Bush indicated that he would oppose the idea--gaining ground quickly in the Congress--of altering the terms of the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act to allow defense savings to be shifted to domestic programs.

He said he was proposing an overall freeze in discretionary domestic spending, although he did include a $1.6-billion increase in discretionary education programs, much of which would be earmarked for America 2000 and choice. ('See related story, this page.)

Urban Family Commission

The president also announced that he would establish "a new commission on America's urban families," an idea he said he got from a meeting with big-city mayors.

"They said that every one of them, Republicans and Democrats, agreed on one thing--that the major cause of the problems of the cities is the dissolution of the family," Mr. Bush said.

"They asked for this commission, and they were right to ask, because it's time to determine what we can do to keep families together, strong and sound," he said.

An Administration initiative to grant local private-industry councils authority over vocational-education and job-training programs does not appear in the education budget.

That plan, announced by President Bush in a Jan. 17 speech, remains vague, but apparently would call for some degree of consolidation of programs under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, the Job-Training Partnership Act, the Adult Education Act, federal welfare-to-work programs, and some student-aid programs. ('See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

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