Hi John, there are a lot of posts like this on here and on the Raft Zone at boater talk. I would suggest searching around to get a lot of info on the topic. I think the general gist of what you will get from people (like me, many are raft guides, former guides, and/or experienced private rafters) who will say
1. A used "good" raft is better than a new cheap raft.
2. The best way to learn rafting quickly is through an outfitters guide training/hiring class, the second best way is to go with experienced people for a while and have them show you around
3. Everyone on the river should take a swiftwater rescue class
Generally the conversation then goes to who does the best class, who is the best swiftwater instructor, arguments and jokes ensue...
It takes a big man to cry...It takes an even bigger man to laugh at that man.