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John Kerry
Remarks to the American Federation of Teachers
July 16, 2004 • Washington, DC

It is an honor to be here with all of you today.

Every day, so many of you prove that the difference between a life of sorrow and a life filled with success can be the guidance of a good teacher. Your commitment and your passion encourage us to hope for the very best in our schools. And your willingness to become involved in public service is a reminder that in America, optimists are found on every corner.

Years ago, one of our most courageous optimists grew up on a most forgotten American corner. As a little girl living in a Coney Island tenement, she attended New York Public School 188. And from the day her second-grade teacher gave her her very first book, she began a lifetime giving back to our teachers, our schools, and our children.

As Sandy Feldman has often said, if that school was not there, she would not be here.

Fortunately for teachers everywhere and the children who count on them, it was there, she is here, and her seven years of leadership has brought us closer to an America where quality education is there for every child. Sandy Feldman, we are moved by your public dedication and inspired by your personal courage. Thank you.

Your example and the example of every member of the AFT – from our nurses and health care workers to our public employees and paraprofessionals – show us what it means to live by real American values: serving your communities, caring for our families, providing opportunity for our young people, and taking responsibility for giving them the best you have to offer.

These are values that built America, and I am running for President because I believe it’s time our government stood for the same values you do.

Values are not just talk. They’re what we live. They’re about the choices we make, the causes we champion, and the people we fight for.

And we believe that what matters is not the narrow values that divide -- it’s the shared values that unite all of us in this country

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.

That means understanding that we can’t create good schools on the cheap. And it means ensuring that there’s a good teacher at the front of every classroom in America.

One of my favorite high school teachers was named John Walker. He was the kind of teacher who always encouraged you to do your very best. He pushed you. He believed in you. He inspired you. And if you ever stopped trying, he’d remind you that effort is everything.

Teachers like John Walker are demanding. But they’re the ones who make a difference. You never forget your great teachers. They stay with you, throughout your life, looking over your shoulder and pushing you forward.

This is personal for me. You see my other favorite teacher just happens to be my sister, Diana. Diana and the other teachers and educational support professionals that I’ve met go far and above the call of duty for their students – sometimes spending a thousand dollars of their own money to give their classes better text books and supplies.

Diana loves being a teacher. But her school in Boston had to cut back. That meant larger class sizes, less opportunity and less hope. And it meant that my sister was laid off because of budget cuts – instead of being rewarded for making a difference.

Let me tell you, we value our children’s future by hiring new teachers and paying them more – not by sacrificing the great teachers we already have.

We can make America stronger by making a new commitment to our schools and our children. They don’t need a politician’s praise. They need a president who values a good education as the gateway to a good job, a better life, and the best America. And if you send me to the White House, that’s exactly the kind of President we’ll have. My first priority will be to meet our financial responsibilities to our schools.

When the No Child Left Behind Act became law, Congress and this administration made a commitment to our nation’s children. We said we’re going to raise standards, and we’re going to make sure you have the resources to get the job done. Well, two months after the law was signed, this Administration tried to break their promise by shortchanging the law by $27 billion. Millions of children have been left behind – left with overcrowded classrooms, left without textbooks, and left without the high-quality tests that measure what they are learning.

I’ll tell you what: politicians who talk about valuing morality and personal responsibility ought to start by keeping their own promises.

It’s time to make these reforms work. And it’s time to fully fund No Child Left Behind.

We also need to do something about the infrastructure of our schools. Thousands of schools across America are crumbling today. What does that say about valuing our kids’ future? When I am President, we will build and rebuild, modernize and repair, our school buildings with new school modernization bonds.

But I have to tell you, even after we put in these resources, we will still have a lot left to do. As I’ve often said, reform without resources is a waste of time and resources without reform is a waste of money. We need to continue the work of reform, and improve education in America. The AFT has been a leader in promoting education reform, because you know that we owe our children the best we have to offer.

So I want to talk about three great challenges facing our educational system today, and how I plan to meet them.

First, we need a national effort to put a good teacher in every classroom. That means we need to offer teachers more and ask more of them at the same time.

Pay for teachers in America today is a national disgrace. We need to raise it—starting in the poorest schools and in the subjects where we face the most serious teacher shortages. Teachers deserve more support, mentoring, and continuing education so they don’t feel like they’re left to sink or swim. And we need career developments so successful teachers get the added responsibilities and respect they deserve.

We need to treat teachers more like the professionals that they are and pay them more like professionals. Not only does that mean higher pay; it means new rewards for teachers who gain advanced training and excel in raising student achievement. And teachers deserve due process protection from arbitrary dismissal, but we must have fast, fair procedures for improving or removing teachers who aren’t performing. We should hold all teachers to the same high standards you apply to yourselves.

And today, one of the biggest obstacles to higher pay for teachers is the rising cost of health care. You’ve all seen it during negotiations. The money that should be going into your pockets is going to pay for the rising cost of health care. That’s why I’ve got a plan to get the waste and greed of our health care system and help families save up to $1,000 on their premiums. This will help all working Americans earn the pay they deserve.

Second, we need a national movement to raise graduation rates. It’s time to make and keep a commitment to leave no high school student behind by tracking graduation rates just like we track test scores.

And then we need to invest more in the children who are falling behind—with tutoring and mentoring. This will send those kids a signal: not only do we want you to finish high school, but we want you to have the tools and the skills and the knowledge to go to college. And we need more after-school programs for kids—so that they can get extra help in school instead of getting into trouble. That’s why my plan will extend after-school to more than 3.5 million kids across America.

And finally, we need to send more young people to college and help them graduate. My plan will provide new incentives to hold tuitions down and a new refundable tax credit on up to $4000 of tuition. We can never stand back and shrug pessimistically at the fact that 220,000 young people have to walk away from their dream of going to college simply because they can’t afford it. We can’t afford to lose those bright minds. We value our children too much.

We can’t provide a 21st century education in 19th century schools. No broken promises on funding. No more empty rhetoric on reform. No privatizing the public jobs that strengthen our communities. And no vouchers. For too long politicians have used private school vouchers to avoid responsibility. 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.

We can do this, because we know that America’s best days lie ahead. And because Americans have always reached for the impossible, looked toward the next horizon, and asked “what if?”

What if this airplane could take off at Kitty Hawk and change the world forever? What if we could go to the moon in ten years? What if we could take all the information in the world and put it in a little chip, the size of a fingernail. If you’d told anyone that 50 years ago, they wouldn’t have believed you. But you know what? We did them. And we’re going to keep pushing those boundaries in the future.

What if we cured Parkinson’s, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s? What if all Americans could have health care? What if our schools could lift all our children up?

This is the most important election of our lifetime. Our health care is on the line. Our jobs are on the line. America’s role in the world is on the line. Our children’s future is on the line.

But this election is in your hands more than mine. Over the next four months, will you knock on doors? Will you be part of this effort? Will you talk to your neighbors? Will you bring America back?

We need a new conversation. We need to lift ourselves up, reach for the possible, and look to the horizon. We’re the can-do people.

I know that the teachers of America will not rest until we build the future of our children’s dreams, for all Americans. And as your President, neither will I. Because you and I believe America can do better. We believe in the possibility of tomorrow. And we believe, as the poet Langston Hughes once wrote, that we must “Let American be America again.”


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