- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — President Bush yesterday refused to let the slumping economy distract him from his message of the day, the importance of education, although top White House officials fanned out to defend the president's economic recovery plan.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, traveling with Mr. Bush in Florida, told reporters the president would not embrace "short-term rushes" toward economic revitalization, preferring instead to stick with his long-term plan of lower taxes and interest rates, which has been criticized by Democrats.

"The president has already put in place a recovery plan," Mr. Fleischer said. "But it does seem odd for Democrats to criticize without offering any plans of their own. Do the Democrats have an alternative package for economic growth, or is their only package criticism?"

Vice President Richard B. Cheney largely scrapped his planned energy speech to Southern governors and instead devoted most of his remarks to the stalled economy. He warned against Democrats' calls for tax increases and refuted Democrats' claims that the Bush budget "raids" Social Security funds.

"This budget does protect Social Security and Medicare. Benefits will be paid on time and in full," Mr. Cheney said in Frankfort, Ky. "The president is dealing with Congress in good faith, and that good faith should be returned in kind."

Mr. Bush himself refused to answer questions about the economy, preferring to plow ahead with an education discussion on a panel that included his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. It was the president's first appearance with his brother since former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno announced she would challenge the governor in his re-election bid next year.

Although unemployment is at its highest level in years and the stock market continues to slump, Mr. Bush showed no signs of panicking in response to Republican lawmakers' worries about being blamed for the economic slowdown in next year's elections. The president would not be deterred.

"Please get it to my desk," Mr. Bush said to several members of Congress who accompanied him to Justina Road Elementary School. "We could use a little help with the Congress."

Although Mr. Bush has asked for massive federal spending increases for education, he told the Florida governor he supports decentralization of government resources for schools. "Lest I make the governor feel uncomfortable, I'm absolutely against the federalization of public education," the president said. "I believe that the best way to achieve excellence for every child is to pass power out of Washington and to trust the local folks."

Still, Mr. Bush made clear he does not trust some teachers to properly instruct students on how to read. "One of the unfortunate aspects that we find in many states is that there are great teachers who have got wonderful hearts who don't know how to teach reading," he said.

Members of the House and Senate education committees will meet Thursday in an attempt to settle their differences over Mr. Bush's education reform plan.

They are expected to approve an initiative that will triple federal funding of literacy programs for children to $900 million a year.

At the center of the Bush proposal are plans for annual testing of elementary school students. However, lawmakers have argued about how the tests will be implemented and funded.

Jonathan Oliver contributed to this report.

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