WASHINGTON - Targeting an issue popular with women, a key voter group, Mitt Romney assailed President Obama's leadership on education Wednesday and blamed teachers unions for problems facing American schools.
The Republican presidential candidate is making education the focus of his brief campaign schedule this week. On Thursday, he will tour a charter school in Philadelphia.
Romney told a luncheon of Latino businessmen and -women in Washington that in the United States today, "millions of kids are getting a Third World education, and America's minority children suffer the most."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said that improving education is "the civil-rights issue of our era, and it's the greatest challenge of our time."
He has said he would cut spending at the U.S. Department of Education. In a white paper issued by his campaign, he signaled his intention to go well beyond Obama's efforts to encourage school choice and promote charter schools, though Romney provided few specifics in his speech to a Latino Coalition audience of 250 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters.
He sharply criticized the Obama administration for its decision to back away from a federally funded voucher program that allows thousands of children to attend private schools in Washington. And he said that as president, he'd "break the political logjam" that has prevented reform of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind school law. Obama has sought to circumvent that stalemate by granting waivers designed to free states from some of the strictest provisions of the law.
Romney promised to "reduce federal micromanagement" of local education, while providing parents with easy-to-understand report cards about the quality of their child's school. The Obama campaign countered that Romney would scrap portions of the 2002 education law that single out the worst performing schools for mandatory fixes. In passages that won applause from the friendly lunchtime crowd, Romney blamed the "outsized influence" of teachers unions in campaigns and elections for frustrating efforts to improve school quality.
"President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses and unwilling to stand up for our kids," Romney charged, citing hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by teachers unions to Democratic campaigns as the cause.
Romney also wants to roll back Obama's student aid program overhaul, which cut out commercial banks from lending that provided them with billions of dollars in income. He gave few details on how he would reform the aid program.
In response, the Obama campaign charged that Romney's proposals would undermine education by putting tax cuts for the wealthy ahead of more money for schools. In a statement echoed by Obama campaign officials, the National Education Association - the nation's largest teachers union - said that "as governor, Romney cut early education and pre-K funding, vetoed $10 million for kindergarten expansion, questioned the benefits of early education, and suggested Head Start was a failure."
During Romney's term as governor of Massachusetts, "class sizes increased and thousands of teachers were laid off, college costs skyrocketed, and graduation rates at community colleges lagged behind the national average," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement.