Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush vowed today that his administration would strip federal funding from failing public schools "that cheat poor children" and give the money to parents to pay for tutors or to help transfer their children to other schools, including private ones.

Although Bush never used the hot-button word "vouchers," the proposal he outlined today employs some of the elements of one of the most controversial ideas in American education, and it drew immediate fire from voucher opponents.

The concept behind vouchers is to allow parents to use their tax dollars to send their children to private schools, including religious ones. Bush's voucher program would allow only some students in some failing schools to use some federal funds.

"In my administration, federal money will no longer flow to failure," the Texas governor said.

Since he began campaigning for the GOP nomination in June, Bush had avoided providing detailed policy proposals on major issues, saying that would come in the fall. Today's back-to-school address marks the beginning of that process for the front-running Republican -- and he chose an issue that he has made a top priority in Texas. Moreover, education consistently tops the list of concerns expressed by the national electorate.

Before a luncheon audience at the Latino Business Expo in downtown Los Angeles, Bush also said that he would transform the Head Start program, which serves 840,000 needy preschoolers, from its emphasis on day care into a literacy program. Finally, Bush endorsed the use of phonics to teach reading and said "sloppy and trendy" curriculums "focusing on self-esteem over basic skills" should be abandoned.

Bush's proposals brought an immediate response from Vice President Gore, who is running for the Democratic nomination. "All the sweet talk in the world can't hide the fact that George Bush wants to slam the door on the kids in America's public school system," Gore said. "What little money would be left for education with his risky Republican tax plan would be wiped out by his back-door voucher plan."

Bush said the $7.7 billion in federal Title 1 funds, which are earmarked for disadvantaged schools, would no longer automatically go to those schools, but would have to be earned. He said each school would test its students -- using a state exam, not a federal one. Schools that failed to reach state standards would first be warned, and after three years would lose Title 1 funds.

Those funds, with other federal moneys, equaling about $1,500 per pupil, then would be "directly available to parents," Bush said. "This money can then be used by students for tutoring, for a charter school, for a working public school in a different district, or for a private school.

"In the best case, these schools will rise to the challenge and regain the confidence of parents," he said. "In the worst case, we will offer scholarships to America's neediest children, allowing them to get the emergency help they should have. In any case, the federal government will no longer pay schools to cheat poor children."

The $1,500 that would be available to parents under the Bush proposal is about a quarter of what an average school district spends each year to educate a child. On average, schools spend about $6,200 per pupil.

Bush praised ongoing reform efforts that are beginning to transform schools around the country, but he noted the sizable disparity in many states between the test scores -- and graduation rates -- of whites and minorities. "It is a scandal of the first order when the average test scores of African American and Latino students at age 17 are roughly the same as white 13-year-olds," he said. "More and more, we are divided into two nations, separate and unequal. One that reads and one that can't. One that dreams and one that doesn't."

The audience of Latino business executives applauded when Bush said, "We do not have a national school board, and we do not need one. A president is not a federal principal, and I will not be one." But he also said, "When we spend federal money, I want results -- especially when it comes to disadvantaged children."

Bush described a more activist role for the federal government in education than some conservatives embrace. While he endorsed a voucher program, Bush challenged those in his party who have called for the elimination of the Education Department by saying that, with a sixth of the U.S. population in public schools, it is wrong "to give up on public education entirely."

The Bush proposal came under attack from the National School Boards Association and the American Federation of Teachers, whose president, Sandra Feldman, said Bush "marshals the rhetoric of reform but demonstrates a lack of commitment to public education."

Reaction from rival GOP campaigns reflected Bush's effort to thread the needle between moderate and conservative approaches to school reform. Both candidates vying to emerge as the mainstream alternative to Bush -- Elizabeth Dole and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- were reluctant to criticize the proposals.

But conservative candidate Steve Forbes wasted little time blasting Bush. "What the governor has done is effectively tell parents to wait three years for real school reform. It's the equivalent of saying the check is in the mail," said Forbes national chairman Kenneth Blackwell.

The part of Bush's proposal that would tie federal funding to test performance for low-income schools is similar to a plan outlined by President Clinton last January in his State of the Union address. Clinton proposed an "Education Accountability Act" that would require states to "turn around their worst-performing schools or shut them down."

Clinton's plan, like Bush's, would require states to develop tests for schools receiving Title 1 funds. Under the Clinton plan, which was sent to Congress but was not acted upon, failure to show improvement on those tests could lead to a cutoff of Title 1 funds. Unlike Bush's plan, Clinton's would not send unused Title 1 money to parents.

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley commended the part of Bush's proposal he said would "start down the road of accountability" for low-income schools but criticized the plan's "dangerous detour into vouchers."

Campaigning today in Cleveland, where a state-funded voucher program is the subject of a court debate, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley said, "I don't think school vouchers are the answer to the problems of public education." Bradley said such programs have problems, "not the least of which are issues of church and state."

Most of the voucher schools have religious affiliations, and opponents say the program violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

Staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.