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Bush, in Florida, pressures Congress on education

President Bush
President Bush speaks in Florida on Monday  

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (CNN) -- President George W. Bush visited a Florida elementary school Monday as part of a renewed campaign to press Congress for an agreement on his education plan, a cornerstone of his agenda that has been on hold for months because of differences in competing Senate and House bills.

House and Senate conference negotiators worked on the bills during Congress' August recess, and they are slated to meet again several times this week to try to hammer out their remaining differences.

Aides said a progress report is expected later in the week, outlining provisions upon which the two sides have reached agreement -- likely including the president's "Reading First" initiative, which would increase federal contributions to reading programs for younger students.

"Both bills have got really good features to them. And it's now time for people to act in the nation's capital and get the bill to my desk so that people at the local level can start to plan, and start to strategize and to make things happen in a positive way," Bush said during a visit to Justina Road Elementary School in Jacksonville.

His brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, also attended the event.

A key difference yet to be worked out between the House and Senate is that of funding, an issue that could be further clouded by a weak economy and a federal budget outlook that has become considerably more tight in recent weeks.

The Republican-controlled House's version of the bill, passed in May, would provide $23 billion for education in the upcoming 2002 fiscal year -- up from $18 billion this year. The Senate, now in the hands of Democrats, passed a version calling for $32 billion in spending.

At Justina Road Elementary, a school that has posted impressive gains in reading scores in recent years, Bush highlighted his Reading First initiative, a component of the education plan that increases federal funding for reading programs in the early grades. Twice, he noted that education is not a partisan issue, calling for Republicans and Democrats to work together in Washington.

"There's too many of our kids in America who can't read today," he said. "Maybe not in this school, but around the nation there's just too many. And now it's time to wage war on illiteracy for the young, and to whip this problem early."

Bush has been calling on Congress to complete work on the bill for weeks, and he stepped up his push for closure on the education bill in his radio address Saturday. There, too, he praised both the Senate and House versions of the legislation, but in apparent reference to Senate Democrats, he criticized lawmakers who are holding out for more funding.

"I have agreed with the Congress that we must increase education spending. But some, for whom the increases this year may not be enough, are threatening to stall these much-needed reforms," he said Saturday. "That is a tactic of the past in Washington that has neither worked for our country nor, more sadly, for our children. After many years of debate, the American people are counting on us to deliver on our promise of reform for the public schools."

Bush's education plan, which has been billed as the biggest change in federal education policy in 35 years, calls for annual testing of students in grades 3 through 8, and would give more short-term funding for under-performing schools. It would impose sanctions on schools that fail to improve in the long run.

The president, who is looking to claim education reform as the second main accomplishment of his young administration -- the other being the tax cut approved earlier this year -- intends to keep applying pressure throughout the week as the House-Senate conference committee continues its work. On Tuesday, Bush will visit another school in Florida, this one in Sarasota.

For months, he has spoken out against what he describes as "the soft bigotry of low expectations" in making his case for education reform. Ever since his campaign for president in 2000, he has placed education high on his priority list, and has made it one of the most pressing goals during his first year in office.

• House Committee on Education and the Workforce
• Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
• U.S. Department of Education
• The White House

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