WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (AP) -- President Bush, seeking Democratic support for an education package submitted to Congress on Tuesday, promised more help to troubled schools before shifting more federal funds to private institutions.

"Our goal is to improve public education," Bush said in an East Room send-off for an education agenda that centers around vouchers for private school education, the most divisive part of his program to hold public schools accountable for student learning.

Bush said he wants to require annual state reading and math tests for students in every grade in order to gather reliable data on "who's falling behind and who needs help."

"Once failing schools are identified, we'll help them improve. We'll help them help themselves," said Bush, with Education Secretary-designate Rod Paige at his side.

In Bush's plan, his signature campaign issue, failing schools have three years to get up to standards, so that pupils are able to achieve before federal funds are stripped for other uses such as vouchers.

"When schools do not teach and will not change, parents and students must have other meaningful options," Bush said.

"If somebody's got a better idea, I hope they bring it forward."

Bush, who said he wanted legislation enacted by summer so that school districts have time to implement reforms for the 2001-02 academic year, met privately Tuesday morning with top Congressional Republicans and Democrats who oversee education policy-making.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said afterward that despite differences over vouchers, Democrats are eager to work with him on education.

"The areas which he pointed out where we are in agreement, I thought were very substantial. I, for one, am interested in getting some action" on education overhaul, Kennedy said outside the West Wing.

"What is important today is that we have a president that wants to make this a strong priority on education and I think we have those that have leadership positions in the House and Senate that want to work with him and get something meaningful done," the Democrat said.

A Bush official, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday, said Bush had decided on some changes to his voucher plan to win over hostile Democrats.

Bush is proposing additional funding--beyond even what he proposed during his campaign. Corrective measures for such schools would include allowing students to use federal money for transportation to a public school with a better record. Removing the school principal would be another second-year option.

Bush, who called education "the most fundamental of American issues," is making education his first major policy initiative. The plan mirrors his campaign platform--a $47.6 billion plan to shape up failing schools, increase the student-testing regimen, hand districts more control over federal dollars, and make sure all children can read by age 9.

He also proposed to give $1,500 vouchers to the parents of students in public schools that are deemed failures for three years in a row. That money would help parents pay to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

Democrats and some moderate Republicans in Congress rushed this week to formally reject federally funded vouchers. Roughly 20,000 children nationwide already are using state-funded vouchers for nonpublic schools.

The rhetoric heated up over the voucher issue.

"There's so many areas of agreement, let's not get sidetracked on the issue of vouchers," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Kennedy, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"This has been stamped a voucher program by the forces that do not wish to see it succeed or do not wish to try anything else," said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a member of the Senate committee that oversees education policy. Gregg says Bush's plan is school choice for children trapped in chronically low-performing schools.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate and voucher supporter, and other centrist Democrats are offering their own plan that cracks down on failing schools--but excludes vouchers.

The Democratic approach, Lieberman said on ABC's "Good Morning America," is to "pour more money into poorer schools, give the teachers and principals more flexibility on how they are going to use that money and...if they are not working, close the schools down and radically restructure them, give parents an opportunity to send their kids to a higher-performing public school."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, told ABC that Bush wants to make all options available. "I think having the ability to go to a better-performing public school is a great option. But in some urban and some rural areas, there may not be that option, there may not be a better public school," she said.

Tuesday's ceremony, following morning meetings with top lawmakers, marked Bush's second weekday on the job. On Monday, he started his presidency by imposing strict restrictions on U.S. funds to international family-planning groups involved in abortion--pleasing his conservative supporters but angering abortion-rights groups.

"Reading is the new civil right, the cornerstone of hope and opportunity in America," he said.

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