President Bush sought Thursday to answer the criticism from his Democratic rival for the White House that his administration has failed to devote enough money and ingenuity to improving public education, visiting a high school here that the president said is a model of how to elevate secondary school standards.
Bush's remarks in this community near the Ohio line marked the third consecutive day that he has promoted his education policies after the release last week of a plan by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to lower the dropout rate, increase federal funding for school improvements and help an additional 1 million students graduate from high school in the next five years.
The president did not issue any fresh policy proposals, but he said federal spending on education has risen 49 percent during his tenure, even though schools are primarily funded by states and municipalities. Bush gave a rundown of the strategies he favors, including intervention programs for teenagers who are poor readers, increased access to advanced courses that carry college credit, and improvements in math and science curricula.
In his customary manner, Bush linked education to the economy. "See, if you can't read, these jobs of the 21st century are going to go begging," he said.
Even as Bush defended his record on education, Kerry, the presumed Democratic nominee, focused on another prime domestic issue -- health care -- for the fourth day in a row, saying in Little Rock that Bush has failed to adequately provide for veterans' medical services.
"Here we are with an administration that is busy creating a whole new generation of veterans," Kerry said. "Veterans earned their health care. It was a promise made by a nation. People who served their country, I believe, above all have a right to have that promise kept."
Although education was the theme of Bush's visit here, the conflict in Iraq was on his mind and in those of his listeners in the gymnasium of Parkersburg South High School. The president introduced two Marines in the audience who had served in Iraq, one of whom returned home with a gunshot wound 21/2 weeks ago. The president did not mention that, according to news accounts, 400 area residents last Sunday attended the funeral of the third young man from here to have been killed in Iraq this year.
Bush talked about the abuse of Iraqi detainees by U.S. military guards at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, saying: "Like you, I have been disgraced about what I've seen on TV, what took place in the prison. The actions of a few do not reflect on the fantastic character of the over 200,000 men and women who have served our nation."
Bush's quick trip -- he was back in Washington four hours after he left -- was his second in six weeks to West Virginia. He carried the state by 6 percentage points in 2000, but recent polls suggest that support here is closely divided between him and Kerry. The White House classified the trip as an official presidential visit, not a campaign event, so it was paid for by the public.
On Thursday evening, Bush spoke in Washington at the annual dinner of the American Conservative Union.
Kerry returned to Capitol Hill on Thursday night to view unreleased photos and videos of Iraqi detainees being sexually humiliated and physically threatened.
Staff writer Jim VandeHei in Little Rock contributed to this report.