By JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - President Bush stepped back into the battle over school vouchers Monday, saying the Supreme Court's decision upholding government funding of private school education was as historic as one that outlawed separate schools for blacks.
A year after his proposal collapsed in Congress, Bush asked lawmakers to reconsider it.
The president's promotion of such programs Monday also was notable for his use of the word "vouchers," which after becoming synonymous with bitter debates over the topic had been avoided by Bush speechwriters.
There was no distance between Bush's support for vouchers and that of his boisterous audience in hot, historic State Theatre in downtown Cleveland. Many in his audience had come from the inner-city communities that supporters of vouchers contend would benefit from a taxpayer-funded school-choice program that was the subject of the high court's ruling Thursday.
The 5-4 decision upheld a program that gives mostly poor parents a tuition subsidy of up to $2,250 per child at parochial or other nonpublic schools.
An animated Bush, frequently waving his hands before the 3,000 people sitting in the red-velvet seats of the ornate theater, said to great applause that the Supreme Court "gave a great victory" to students across America. The event had an unusually intimate feel, with one listener yelling out "Love you, Mr. President!" as he took the stage, and others occasionally murmuring "that's right" and "yes" as Bush spoke.
"It is a constructive approach to improving public education," Bush said. "We're interested in aiming toward excellence for every child, and the voucher system is a part of the strategy."
After the speech, audience members praised the president, though some expressed concerns about the future of public schools.
"I agree with him about the success of all children, but I believe in public education," said Beverly Williams, 49, of Cleveland. "We really should be sure we are not draining resources" from public schools.
Even people who said they are not Bush loyalists said they came out to support the president.
Faye Benson, 50, of University Heights, stood in the back row of the large theater.
"It's my patriotic duty to support the president, even though I don't necessarily agree with him," she said.
While campaigning for president, Bush proposed stripping federal funds from the worst-performing schools and making them available to parents for private education vouchers.
Congress wouldn't go along, and Bush instead signed an education overhaul that increases federal aid to public schools where scores have failed to improve two years in a row. If scores were to remain too low, low-income students could receive tutoring or transportation to other public schools.
Bush said the program could help the 4.5 million students now in schools identified as underperforming.
He also spoke in favor of his new try at a federal voucher program, part of his "compassionate conservative" domestic agenda. It would offer a $2,500-per-child education tax credit for families whose children attend private schools instead of failing neighborhood public schools. The five-year, $3.5 billion proposal also would cover books, computers, transportation and supplies.
Critics say voucher systems drain money from public schools and too often end up supporting religious education as opposed to alternative secular institutions.
"There's nothing compassionate about forcing Americans to support religion," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There's nothing conservative about requiring people to pay for religious indoctrination they don't believe in. Religious schools and other ministries should rely on voluntary contributions from believers, not involuntary donations extracted from American taxpayers."
Bush suggested the Supreme Court's decision on Cleveland's voucher system could have a transforming effect similar to that of the unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that integrated the nation's schools.
"The Supreme Court, in 1954, declared that our nation could not have two education systems, ... one for African-Americans and one for whites," Bush said. "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. And that's just as historic."
Monday's visit was Bush's seventh to Ohio.
Accompanied by black members of his administration, including Education Secretary Rod Paige and Alphonso Jackson, deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Monday's trip also gave Bush a chance to reach out to minority voters he has courted with little success. Black voters supported Gore by a 9-1 margin in the last presidential election.