Mitt Romney, with Hector Barreto Jr., chairman of the Latino Coalition,… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
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 and lead a discussion on education in the most heavily Democratic part of the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
Romney told a luncheon of Latino businesspeople 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."
The former Massachusetts governor said that improving education was "the civil rights issue of our era, and it's the greatest challenge of our time."
Romney has said he would cut spending at the 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 theU.S. Chamber of Commerceheadquarters.
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 theGeorge W. Bushadministration'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 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 as the cause hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by teachers unions to Democratic campaigns.
"We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids," he said.
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.
Romney has not proposed any new spending for education, his campaign said.
National Education Assn. President Dennis Van Roekel said the Romney plan was a recycled version of Bush's education policies, adding that attacking "unions like the NEA with gross exaggerations about its political muscle and with divide-and-conquer tactics is a distraction from having to confront the real questions about his education record as governor of Massachusetts."
In a statement echoed by Obama campaign officials, the NEA — 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, "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.
The choice for voters in November, she said, will be between Obama, "who has made critical investments in and reforms to education that have improved schools and made college more affordable, and Mitt Romney, whose Romney Economics would prioritize tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires over investments in our future."