- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

Tony Higgins is candid and says he did not vote for George W. Bush. But he's an outspoken supporter when it comes to the president's vision for education reform.

A single father raising two daughters who have used scholarships to attend private schools in Milwaukee, Mr. Higgins was among several school-voucher parents who made a trip yesterday to the White House, where the president was touting his education plan.

"I think that the ideas that he has about education if he stands behind them could be the start of the most sweeping education policies to ever come down for poor and minority children in this country," said Mr. Higgins, 45, who testified last month before a House committee about his children's success in the nation's longest running school-voucher program.

Mr. Bush, who supports school choice options but faces a tough road ahead as those issues are debated in Congress, met with charter school and voucher proponents yesterday, their leaders joining him on stage as he made remarks at the Old Executive Office Building.

The president reiterated his belief that children who attend public schools that do not help them learn should have the option to move on to other public or private schools that help them excel. He cited the nation's failure to progress in the last eight years on national reading tests and expressed outrage over the $125 billion in federal Title 1 money spent over the past 25 years that has failed to significantly help poor students.

"America's schools are becoming increasingly separate and unequal," said Mr. Bush, who called on government to empower parents by "applying pressure from above and competition from below."

"We must do more than tinker around the edges," he said of education reform.

School choice, he added, "is an idea that I remain strongly committed to."

Mr. Bush was warmly received by the group and lingered after his speech to speak with families in the audience.

Christine Suma, a Cleveland mother of 12 who has four children attending private Catholic school on publicly funded scholarships, leaned in to tell Mr. Bush how grateful she was for his push for school choice.

"I thanked him for caring about my children," said Mrs. Suma, whose husband, Stephen, is a correctional officer.

"I think it's about time that we level the education playing field we have in the United States," said Mrs. Suma, who voted for Mr. Bush. "It's very unequal."

Howard Fuller, president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national school choice advocacy group that is airing a million-dollar public awareness campaign on television and radio, met with Mr. Bush yesterday and pledged to keep up his fight for educational equity.

"This movement is going to grow," said Mr. Fuller, who spoke at a luncheon at the National Press Club sponsored by the Institute for Justice, which has defended several voucher families in lawsuits around the nation.

"If you live in America, you should not have to send your children to a school that does not work for your children."

Mr. Bush, who released his education budget on Monday, has called for about $375 million in federal money to be devoted to charter school construction and operation. He also wants to allow parents to invest up to $5,000 per year in tax-free education savings accounts from kindergarten through college.

Last week, Bush officials and Senate leaders drafted a tentative arrangement that would allow the federal government to give money to students who attend persistently failing schools. The student could use the money to move on to a better public school or use it on private tutoring.

The Senate is expected to take up the education package later this month.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, says he will introduce a voucher amendment on the Senate floor, but Democrats, who argue that vouchers drain money from public schools that need it most, may filibuster.

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