WASHINGTON – Democrat John Kerry (search) is giving teachers a promise he claims President Bush has left behind: to put as much money behind the nation's education reforms as allowed under law.
"No broken promises on funding, and no more empty rhetoric on reform," Kerry said in prepared remarks to the American Federation of Teachers (search). "As president, I will meet our responsibilities. We're going to get this done right because we know that empty rhetoric and empty promises lead to empty dreams, and we won't let that happen in our America."
Kerry was taking his message Friday to 3,000 delegates at the AFT convention, where he was also expected to pick up their endorsement.
He took on the topic dominating debate in education — No Child Left Behind (search), the law that was Bush's first domestic priority and that won overwhelming support in 2001 from Congress, including Kerry.
Despite record spending by the Republican-led Congress, critics ranging from legislatures to educators say the law is underfunded by billions of dollars, in turn limiting schools' ability to improve.
Kerry has embraced the theme, saying he will fully fund the law, meaning the maximum amount authorized by Congress. That would cost an extra $27 billion alone based on his estimate of the current shortfall.
"We value education as the path to opportunity in America, and we value the teachers who dedicate their lives to giving our young people the best possible start in life," Kerry said. "That means understanding that we can't create good schools on the cheap."
Republicans say schools have enough money to meet the law's requirements, and that parents have become exasperated watching tax money pumped into an education system that isn't producing results for kids.
The law requires a highly qualified teacher in all core classes, expanded standardized testing, more school choice and reporting on how poor, minority and other students perform. Schools that get federal poverty aid but don't make enough progress are supposed to get extra help under the law, but they also face sanctions that grow more severe yearly.
Kerry had other messages sure to resonate with the teachers: improving student graduation rates, reforming testing, lowering health care costs.
The 1.3-million member AFT is composed primarily of public school teachers but also includes health care workers, college faculty and government workers from the local to federal level. The largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has already endorsed Kerry.
What voters care about is increasing parents' access to information, expanding choices for children and improving achievement, and Bush has done all that, said Terry Holt, a Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman.
"John Kerry said he supported No Child Left Behind but has since walked away from that support," Holt said.
In polls, education has fallen behind concerns over war, terrorism and jobs in this election, but both campaigns know it is an issue that may swing votes in a tight election.
The AFT endorsement vote for Kerry has not been in question. The union's executive council has backed Kerry, outgoing president Sandra Feldman has called for his election, and the union is handing out buttons to members that say "AFT supports Kerry for president."