Presidential hopeful tries to woo women voters by demanding reading tests for the very young. Jon Marcus reports.
REPUBLICAN presidential candidate George W Bush has declared childhood illiteracy a "national emergency" and proposed a five-year, $5 billion (pound;3 bn) plan to ensure that all American children can read by age nine.
The proposal will ensure that education becomes a principal issue in the presidential campaign as Mr Bush's likely opponent, vice-president Al Gore, has already proposed a considerably more ambitious and expensive plan to provide free pre-school to every child in America, and cut class sizes.
Mr Bush's scheme would provide for additional teacher training; mandatory reading tests for very young children; and supplementary reading instruction for 920,000 students in low-performing schools, where tests in 1998 showed that as many as 68 per cent of 10-year-olds could not read at a basic level.
Mr Bush unveiled the proposal in the fourth major education speech of his campaign in an attempt to reach out to women and moderates.
The emphasis is unusual for Republicans who have traditionally preferred to leave control of education to local school boards, minimising the feeral role.
Four years ago, a few Republicans even called for the dismantling of the US department of education. Still, Mr Bush said that while he would "spend more on schools, I will expect more from our schools".
He said he considered himself different "from those who would throw money into schools without reforming them" - a criticism of Democrats, who have proposed greater education spending.
"Illiteracy of our children impacts the whole nation, and therefore it requires a national response," Mr Bush said.
He said the states could choose their own assessment tests and teaching methods. And parents would be allowed to remove their children from schools that accept federal funding, but still fail to teach reading effectively.
Mr Bush said he would provide federal vouchers for such parents who could use them to send their children to private schools - the first time a national politician has proposed expanding such a programme.
He has also proposed expanding an existing federal pre-school programme - Head Start, which places a great emphasis on reading skills.
Education experts said they welcomed the plan, but would prefer to see the money spent on preparing students in pre-school.