From CBS News' Andante Higgins:
John McCain has new take on education after his Memphis, Tenn., visit where he was booed for voting against recognizing Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national holiday. He's now concerned with disparities in the level of education for inner cities. He said our education system is "one of the great injustices remaining in America."
In a town hall meeting in Westport, Conn., McCain was asked how he ranked the importance of education. "I give it the highest priority. And I believe education, we all know, is probably one of the most unsavory aspects, or, let me put it this way, one of the great injustices remaining in America is our educational system," he said.
"Because we all know that if you are privileged and grow up in a certain area then you have access to a pretty good education…We also know that there is a dramatic difference between that level of education and say the inner cities in America. Look at the drop out rates, look at all of the test scores. So it's a fundamental unfairness to people who happen to be of lower income than others that there is this dramatic disparity in education," he continued.
McCain stuck to his talking points of choice and competition as the way to make schools better but added a new argument in his stump speech. "I would argue that one of the great challenges of the 21st century is to level this playing field between the disparate levels of education that exist in America today and it's a matter of equality that we are supposedly guaranteeing every citizen according to our pronunciation of all of us being created equal with certain inalienable rights. I feel that strongly about it," he said.
Last week on the 40th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., McCain spoke the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in front of the Lorraine Motel where the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968. On his plane two days after the speech, McCain told reporters he learned a lot from community leaders that day. Some of these lessons showed up in his town hall meeting today. "One thing that's brought home to you when you visit Memphis and talk with much of the leadership in the African-American community, their number one issue probably is education – the disparity between the inner cities and America and the suburbs. I think we need a much larger nation discussion and debate on that issue. Not just re-authorization of No Child Left Behind. We're going to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but we better start looking at the disparity really between different school systems in America," he said.
Senator McCain also said he'd be visiting New York City and other places around the country to see how they are meeting the challenge of education. "But again in talking with a number of leaders in Memphis, the first priority wasn't poverty, although that is a huge priority. But they view poverty as a symptom of the problem of the lack of education in America and the disparities between the school systems," he said.
While McCain got a "Showtime at the Apollo" welcome, he is one of few Republicans to address the African-American community and gets some credit for showing up. But community leaders say they will hold McCain to action. "We believe that a real discussion about issues is more important than symbolic visits to Memphis," said Marc Morial, president and CEO of National Urban League.