By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Inequality in the U.S. education system favors white children over minorities, the poor and the disabled, making it "one of the most urgent civil rights issues of our time," former President George W. Bush said on Thursday.
Speaking to a crowd of students, activists, and national leaders in Austin, Texas, his home state, Bush said he fears a return to "the soft bigotry of low expectations" that strips disadvantaged students of a strong education.
Bush was among four American presidents who addressed the three-day meeting, joining President Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to mark a half century since former President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
With Bush's former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in the audience, Bush focused his remarks on education as a cornerstone of Johnson's civil rights reforms.
He also defended his administration's attempts to close the achievement gap with the embattled 2002 law "No Child Left Behind," which required schools to bring minority children up to the same achievement levels as white students and used annual assessment tools to track progress.
The law was criticized by some as being an unfunded and unfair mandate on schools, as well as a risk to children who don't test well, among other concerns.
But Bush on Thursday called it a basic and effective idea that, like most pieces of legislation over the years, "eventually requires adjustment."
His remarks come as nation debates issues such as the amount of testing in schools, gaps in reading levels between whites and minorities and efforts to privatize the public school system.
"No law is perfect," Bush said. "The problem comes when people start to give up on the goal."
(Reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)