WASHINGTON – Democrat John Kerry (search) told teachers on Friday that his first presidential priority would be financial support for schools, saying educators who move kids from sorrow to success need big help themselves.
"Millions of children have been left behind -- left with overcrowded classrooms, left without textbooks and left without the high-quality tests that we know really measure learning," Kerry told 3,000 delegates of the American Federation of Teachers (search) at their biennial convention.
"So I'll tell you what: Politicians who talk about valuing morality and personal responsibility ought to start by keeping their own promises," Kerry said.
In accusing President Bush of reneging on a pledge to fully pay for his No Child Left Behind (search) education law, Kerry seized on a complaint that's emerged from statehouses to schoolhouses.
Kerry pledged to spend as much on the law as authorized for its programs -- at least $27 billion more, he said -- by rolling back part of Bush's tax cuts.
The Bush campaign says Kerry is the one who hasn't kept his word, as the four-term Massachusetts senator voted for the landmark law in 2001 but now criticizes its enforcement, its funding and some of its provisions.
Kerry's 45-minute speech served as a reminder that education, which lags behind terrorism and jobs in polls of the public's concerns, remains an issue that touches many voters' lives.
Kerry pledged to reduce teachers' health care costs, put greater emphasis on high school graduation rates and improve access to college.
"Pay for teachers in America today is a national disgrace," Kerry said. "We need to raise it -- starting in the poorest schools and in the subjects where we face the most serious teacher shortages."
He repeatedly tied his campaign theme of American values to the daily dedication of teachers. He said he needed their political commitment, too, encouraging them to inspire other voters to join the cause.
The AFT endorsed Kerry before his comments, sealing his support from both major teachers unions. The union envisions a Kerry White House that would give voice to its ideas, boost spending at all levels of education and slow momentum for federal experiments in private-school vouchers.
The labor union plans to work for Kerry, putting paid staff in the most contested states and assigning its volunteer corps to campaign.
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, endorsed Kerry last week.
Kerry has offered teachers better support in exchange for holding them accountable for results. His ideas include paying bonuses to teachers based on how well their students perform, a merit-based plan that the AFT has opposed on grounds it can be arbitrary and unfair.
But AFT officials say Kerry's pay ideas offer room for debate, and that overall, they share his views on education, health care and taxes.
At the heart of the debate in education is the 2001 education law that won overwhelming support from members of Congress, including Kerry.
It 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.
Republicans leaders say states have enough money to support the law thanks to record increases during Bush's term.
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.
Capping his day in Arlington, Va., Kerry spoke to some 850 people at a Democratic fund-raiser, including Gov. Mark Warner, Rep. Jim Moran and Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. The campaign declared the event the largest Democratic fund-raiser in Virginia, raising $1.7 million.