WASHINGTON (AP) _ Declaring education ``the great civil rights issue of our time,'' President Bush honored the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. on Saturday by touting his administration's work on public school reforms.
``Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would accept no less than an equal concern for every child in America, and neither will my administration,'' Bush declared in his weekly radio address.
Bush said Americans can say with satisfaction that the United States has overcome the ``institutionalized bigotry'' that King worked so hard to dismantle. Now, he said, it is time to take on less tangible struggles, such as ensuring equal education.
``Our challenge is to make sure that every child has a fair chance to succeed in life,'' Bush said. ``That is why education is the great civil rights issue of our time.''
Earlier this month, Bush signed into law a far-reaching education bill that requires annual reading and math tests for children in grades three through eight beginning in the 2005-06 school year. It also mandates that schools bolster teacher qualifications and develop periodic ``report cards'' ranking their standardized test scores with other area schools.
Under the new law, schools must improve reading and math proficiency among their students, close gaps in the performances of wealthy and poor students, and white and minority students.
Bush said he would propose, in his 2003 budget plan, a $1 billion increase in funding for federal Title I programs for disadvantaged students, and a $1 billion increase in assistance for ``special needs'' children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
``But we want these new dollars to carry to special education the same spirit of reform and accountability we have brought to other education programs,'' Bush said. ``We must have high expectations for children who are more difficult to teach or who have fallen behind.''
The president said he planned to hold a ceremony at the White House on Monday to commemorate the federal King holiday. Among those scheduled to attend are King's widow, Coretta Scott King, and one of her two daughters, the Rev. Bernice King, the White House said.
First lady Laura Bush will go to Atlanta, King's hometown, Bush said. She is scheduled to speak at a service at King's church, Ebenezer Baptist.
Bush was signing a holiday proclamation that praised King as ``a modern American hero whose leadership rallied people of all races to rise up against injustice,'' and said the holiday in honor of his birthday takes on greater importance because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
``Dr. King's unwavering commitment to nonviolent means of bringing the people of our nation together provided a foundation for healing and trust. That trust brought us through our recent tragedy as we reached out to each other without regard to race or religion.''
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In the Democrats' weekly radio address Saturday, national party chairman Terry McAuliffe called the Sept. 11 attacks ``an act of unspeakable brutality that must be avenged,'' and agreed that the nation should rally around Bush's efforts to do so.
``It's true that the president's approval ratings are high,'' McAuliffe said. ``But we found out in last year's elections that the president's personal appeal doesn't help other Republicans, and doesn't suggest a national embrace of Republican ideas.''
McAuliffe said Democrats intend to spread the message this year that ``the flag for which our military is fighting must not symbolize a nation paralyzed by debt and smothered by joblessness, a nation that fails to protect its elderly or safeguard its natural resources.''