- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

President-elect George W. Bush yesterday pledged to honor Martin Luther King by improving schools for all of the nation's children.

"The dream of equality is empty without excellent schools schools that stress reading and discipline and character and decency," Mr. Bush said at Kelso Elementary School in Houston.

Mr. Bush, who will be sworn in Saturday as the nation's 43rd president, recalled a campaign trip to Little Rock, Ark., where nine black students integrated Central High School in 1957.

"It was there that nine African-American children asked only to be able to go to school. It took the act of a president and the assemblage of a National Guard unit to allow that to happen," said Mr. Bush, who stood next to a portrait of King.

"Today the challenge is different, but there is still a challenge. See, every child can go to school now. The fundamental question is, Is every child learning?"

Mr. Bush, who got only 10 percent of black votes on Election Day, spoke on the eve of the Senate confirmation hearing of Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, whom some black leaders hope to defeat.

Civil-rights groups have branded Mr. Ashcroft a racist for his opposition to one of President Clinton's federal judicial nominees: Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White, who is black.

They also complain that Mr. Ashcroft has spoken favorably about Confederate heroes, such as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

Mr. Ashcroft says he opposed Justice White because he is soft on crime and the death penalty.

Mr. Ashcroft says his comments on Lee and the others, quoted in Southern Partisan magazine, merely expressed admiration for the courage and skill of historic figures.

Gale A. Norton, Mr. Bush's pick for interior secretary, is under fire for saying in 1996 that states "lost too much" of their rights when the Confederacy was defeated in 1865.

Mr. Bush defends his nominees and has said that Mrs. Norton's comments have been distorted. In them, she explicitly stated that the Confederacy was using the principle of state sovereignty to serve the bad cause of slavery.

In his Martin Luther King Day appearance at the mostly black and Hispanic elementary school, Mr. Bush said yesterday that while all children have access to public schools, opportunity is not equal because not all children are learning.

"Some schools are not fulfilling their mission, leaving too many of our children without the basics they need to succeed.

"This is a violation of America's promise," Mr. Bush said.

Rod Paige, Mr. Bush's choice for secretary of education, joined him at the Houston school.

Mr. Paige, the outgoing Houston schools superintendent, "shares the ideals of Martin Luther King equal opportunity, equal treatment and equal rights," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush pledged that he and Mr. Paige will push for quality schools with local control. He said schools must test students and that school systems and parents must demand accountability if students are not learning.

The president-elect praised King, who would have turned 72 yesterday, as "a strong and clear voice for freedom."

Mr. Bush said he would follow King's example in striving for "the blessed community" in which all are valued and all are welcome.

"As president, my job will be to listen, not only to the successful, but also to the suffering, to work toward a nation that respects the dignity of every single life," Mr. Bush said.

"I will remember the promise etched in this day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King."

The slain civil rights leader's "faith in the value of every person inspired others to face police dogs and hoses and violence," Mr. Bush said.

"It inspired millions of Americans to face their own conscience, and our nation is better for it. Dr. King also said those we would change we first must love."

The president-elect also praised King as a patriotic reformer.

"He changed America greatly because he loved America greatly. He called on our country to live up to its principles its founding ideals and unending possibilities."

Lynden B. Rose, an invited guest at the event, saw in Mr. Bush's Cabinet and White House staff picks a leader who "really reached out and tried to include everyone."

"He's extended an olive branch," the Houston lawyer, who is black, told the Associated Press.

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