At his high school alma matter yesterday, John McCain made his first major education speech (not just the first in this campaign???the first in his life, as far as I can tell). He voiced support for several sound policy ideas, including school choice and merit pay. But what's most worth noting was his rhetoric, particularly about teachers. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of another war hero, Bob Dole, who attacked teachers unions in his 1996 convention speech, and was made to look anti-teacher, he clearly wanted to side with excellent teachers while decrying the bureaucracies and unions that defend their incompetent peers.

Much of the speech is a stirring personal account of his days at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He speaks glowingly of his favorite teacher there???William Ravenel, who was "as wise and capable as anyone could expect to be... loved English literature, and taught us to love it as well... He was simply the best man at the school; one of the best men I have ever known."

Then he broadens his praise to include all teachers???or at least all good ones:

Teaching is among the most honorable professions any American can join... Theirs is an underpaid profession, dedicated to the service of others, which offers little in the way of the rewards that much of popular culture encourages us to crave???wealth and celebrity... We should be wise enough to understand that those who work diligently and lovingly to educate the children we entrust to their care, deserve the gratitude and support many of us wish we had given those of our own teachers, who once made such a difference in our own lives.

Then goes for the pivot:

We should reward the best of them with merit pay, and encourage teachers who have lost their focus on the children they teach to find another line of work.

Then goes for the throat:

Schools should compete to be innovative, flexible and student-centered institutions, not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable... There is no reason on earth that this great country should not possess the best education system in the world. We have let fear of uncertainty, and a view that education's primary purpose is to protect jobs for teachers and administrators degrade our sense of the possible in America. There is no excuse for it.

I would have skipped the "protect jobs" line (who really holds that "view" anyway?), but overall it's a nuanced, and appropriate, discussion about state of teaching in America. Bottom line: John McCain is no Bob Dole.

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