Tuesday, July 2, 2002

CLEVELAND President Bush yesterday strongly endorsed the Supreme Court decision allowing school vouchers, which he said was “just as historic” as the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that barred racial segregation in public schools.
“The people of Cleveland and the state of Ohio decided that one of the approaches they wanted to take was to encourage a voucher system to be implemented,” Mr. Bush told several thousand cheering Clevelanders at a sweltering rally.
“And the Supreme Court of the United States gave a great victory to parents and students throughout the nation by upholding the decisions made by local folks here in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.”
It was the first time Mr. Bush publicly used the word “voucher” since becoming president.
“The president typically looks at it as ‘school choice,’” White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Mr. Bush’s remarks drew enthusiastic applause from Clevelanders, whose city last week won a decade-long battle to allow poor children to transfer from failing public schools into, among other options, successful Catholic schools.
The ruling upheld a program, bitterly opposed by teachers unions, giving inner-city parents up to $2,250 in public money for each child for use at parochial or private schools.
Most of the children seeking vouchers are black, a point not lost on the president.
“The Supreme Court, in 1954, declared that our nation could not have two education systems,” Mr. Bush said. “That was the right decision. Can’t have two systems, one for African-Americans and one for whites.
“Last week, what’s notable and important, is that the court declared that our nation will not accept one education system for those who can afford to send their children to a school of their choice and for those who can’t,” he added. “And that’s just as historic.”
Mr. Bush, clearly thrilled with the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, had until Thursday’s ruling been on the losing side of the vouchers issue.
Last year, Congress refused to pass the president’s proposal to establish private education vouchers with money stripped from worst-performing public schools.
Instead, lawmakers passed a sweeping education reform bill that Mr. Bush signed, despite its lack of vouchers.
Now that the Supreme Court has allowed vouchers in Cleveland, the president is pushing for similar programs elsewhere. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, already has introduced a bill to provide vouchers for up to 8,300 children of low-income families in the District.
“It is a constructive approach to improving public education,” Mr. Bush said. “We’re interested in aiming toward excellence for every child, and the voucher system is a part of the strategy to achieve that here in Cleveland.
“One of my jobs is to make sure that we continue to insist upon reform, to take this court decision and encourage others to make the same decision at the local level,” he added.
Seeking to capitalize on the momentum, Mr. Bush called on Congress to give tax credits for families to send their children to successful private schools instead of failing public schools. The proposal, which is similar to vouchers and is contained in the president’s budget, would allow a credit of $2,500 a student for expenses such as tuition, computers, books, supplies and transportation.
“I urge Congress, when we debate how to improve public education, to pass the tax credit so parents will have more flexibility and more choices when it comes to the education of their children, particularly K through 12,” the president said.
Public school officials said the voucher ruling would obliterate the separation of church and state, but a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the Cleveland program was “neutral in all respects toward religion.”
The president’s push for education reform is part of what he calls his “compassionate conservative” agenda.
Other agenda items that he promoted yesterday included minority homeownership and a proposal to allow churches and other religious entities to help administer public welfare programs.
“I urge the Congress to get the bill on my desk that does two things,” Mr. Bush said. “One, it allows for faith-based programs to compete for taxpayers’ monies to help change people’s lives. And secondly, allows non-itemizers to receive a deduction on their income taxes when they give money to a charity.
“Our aim isn’t to make government bigger by spending more money,” he added. “Our aim must be to mean that when we spend money, we spend it on what works to create a better society.”
The president has paid seven visits to Ohio, which is considered a crucial swing state in elections later this year and in 2004. Other swing states scheduled for presidential visits this week include Wisconsin today and West Virginia on Thursday.

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