In a rally reminiscent of the 2000 campaign, Bush addressed a packed gymnasium at Concord Middle School, where he focused on his plan for school accountability through regular testing at the state level.
"Accountability is an incredibly important part of educational excellence," Bush said. "Now, in your state of North Carolina, you measure three through eight. In my state of Texas, we do the same thing.
"And that's exactly the cornerstone of reform necessary."
Under Bush's plan, states would face a three-year deadline to institute annual basic skills tests in grades three through eight so they could receive federal education money. Schools that failed to show progress based on the testing standards would at first receive additional federal funds. But if a school showed no progress for three consecutive years, the administration would cut federal funds and give the money directly to families, which could then use alternatives, including private schools and charter schools.
States could choose to continue funding failing schools without federal dollars.
Democrats remain staunchly opposed to Bush's plan to halt the flow of taxpayer dollars to failing government schools.
In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats have reached a tentative deal, backed by the White House, that would put off debate on the divisive voucher issue to make way for passage of compromise initiatives such as funding for failing schools.
Under the tentative Senate agreement, schools would be required to test students from the third through eighth grade to be eligible for federal education funds. Struggling schools would be entitled to federal funds earmarked for tutoring programs.
But funding levels for the compromise proposal remain an obstacle, in addition to the looming philosophical debate on vouchers. Democrats are pressing for roughly $14 billion in increased funding for education in the next budget. Bush has proposed roughly a $1.6 billion increase.
The Senate is expected to take up the education bill in late April.
Bush also tried to rally support for his tax cuts with another gymnasium speech in Greenville, N.C., the president's second and last stop of the day before returning to Washington.
But the appeals for action on a domestic agenda largely remained in the shadow of developments abroad as China agreed to release the 24-member crew of a downed Navy reconnaissance plane held for 11 days.
"We can't wait for them to get home," Bush told cheering supporters at Greenville's East Carolina University.
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