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Bush Proposes Education Package

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HAMPTON, N.H. (AP) — Texas Gov. George W. Bush pledged Wednesday to increase federal aid to college students and accused Vice President Al Gore of overseeing "seven years of stagnancy'' in the nation's schools.

Returning to New Hampshire, the state of his biggest primary campaign setback, the Republican presidential nominee appealed to education-minded swing voters in an effort to reclaim the offensive in his race against Gore.

Bush suggested that the vice president has been ``belittling people,'' and promised a more civil tone to his campaign. Nonetheless, the Texan said he would not shy away from airing ads that he acknowledged some people might call negative.

Campaigning in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, two states targeted by both campaigns, Bush unveiled initiatives designed to lower college costs for working-class Americans, including:

-- Raising the maximum Pell Grant award from $3,300 to $5,100 for first-year students.

-- Covering one-third of state costs for scholarships to students who take advanced courses in high school.

-- Granting tax exemptions to all qualified prepaid tuition programs.

The initiatives are part of a 10-year, $47 billion plan to train teachers, help disadvantage students learn to read and repair and construct schools.

Bush would penalize states that don't test students in the third through eighth grades. And he would allow children in failing schools to go to private institutions -- their tuition paid with federal money that had been going to their old schools.

Gore would increase federal spending on education by 50 percent -- $115 billion in 10 years -- to raise teachers' salaries, hire more teachers, build and repair schools and, in his centerpiece provision, ensure full access to pre-school.

Both men are veering from party ideology. Gore supports teacher testing, which is opposed by union groups that are key to his Democratic base. Bush's private school voucher plan is not as sweeping as conservatives would like.

Meanwhile, polls continue to show that Gore has gained ground in the state-by-state competition for electoral votes, including in New Hampshire. He is leading in Maryland 51 percent to 36 percent, holding a 46 percent to 41 percent edge in Illinois and closing to within 4 points of Bush's 48 percent support in New Hampshire. That's within the poll's error margin. Bush had been about even in Maryland and Illinois and ahead by 10 points in New Hampshire in polls taken before the conventions.

The campaigns also are well aware of polls that show education as a top issue among voters -- along with health care, Social Security and Medicare. Education is particularly important to women.

Addressing 700 high school students here, Bush acknowledged that some student test scores are rising nationwide. But he said there is a widening ``achievement gap'' between students in quality schools and those in poor ones.

``Some languish. Some are falling behind. And after seven years of stagnancy where the achievement gap has not closed, it is time for new leadership,'' Bush said.

Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway replied, ``Test scores have been improving in many areas but everyone knows there's more work to be done'' including in Texas.

Figures this week showed that Texas students taking the SAT college entrance exam averaged 493 on the verbal test, third-worst in the nation, and 500 in math, tied for seventh-worst. On the plus side, 52 percent of Texas' high school seniors took the test, well above the 44 percent nationally.

Bush's education message on Tuesday in Portland, Maine, was at least partly buried by Gore's challenge to debate him in three October forums on the major networks.

On Monday, Gore chided Bush for not yet revealing his plans to provide prescription drug coverage to senior citizens. Drugs, not schools, became the issue of the day. And twice last week, Bush wandered from his education message to wonder out loud why his tax-cut plan was not taking hold.

Bush has shown signs of irritation about being knocked off message.

``We should have political discourse and debate, but we can do so in a spirit of civility. We can do so without calling names or belittling people. We can do so without wagging our fingers and claiming somebody is bad just because they don't agree with us,'' he told the students.

Later, in an interview with CNN, Bush said his campaign may run negative ads despite his push for civility.

``I may run an ad that says nothing has been done and this administration has not led. Some people would call that negative. I would call that the truth,'' he said.

Also in the CNN interview, Bush said:

-- He has no timetable in mind to pay off the national debt. Gore has promised to do so by 2012.

-- He opposes licensing gun owners. ``Why make innocent, law-abiding citizens register? Why don't we go after violators, people who commit crimes with guns?''

-- He opposes price controls on prescription drugs, in part because it would reduce money to research and development programs.

Later Wednesday, in Ohio, Bush was raising about $3.4 million in three separate fund-raisers.


Kamal Wallace, Web Editor

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