WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that the first federal experiment in school vouchers will liberate District of Columbia families and fuel the school choice movement.
"This initiative is one that's the beginning of what I hope is change all across the country," Bush said about the emerging private-school voucher plan in the nation's capital.
At Archbishop Carroll High School in Northeast Washington, Bush said vouchers and other choice programs send a message that "we want our public schools to succeed . . . But we're going to raise the bar and raise expectations. And when we find children trapped in schools that will not change, parents must be given another viable option."
By proposing the D.C. voucher program and putting a national spotlight on its passage, Bush reinforced a school agenda that he plans to pursue through his election-year budget.
Bush has asked for $50 million in the next budget year for local voucher initiatives, which allow students to attend private and religious schools at public expense. The Democratic rivals for his job, including front-runner John F. Kerry, oppose vouchers.
The District's program will provide vouchers to at least 1,700 poor students who are now part of a chronically struggling system of 65,000 students.
Speaking to about 500 people, including uniformed students, Bush asked others on stage for their success stories.
Virginia Walden Ford, whose son William got a scholarship to attend Archbishop Carroll after struggling in public school, told Bush that she cried in joy the day the Senate approved vouchers to help other parents.
"I appreciate that," Bush said.
The District and the Education Department are scrambling to get the program running in time for the next school year.
Opponents, meanwhile, are trying to halt it. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, plans to file a bill that would redirect the program's $14 million to public schools.
"This is a misplaced priority," said Tanya Clay of People for the American Way. "[Bush] is underfunding 38 education programs in his budget, yet somehow he's able to find millions of dollars for private voucher programs."