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Romney assails unions in speech detailing education plans


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mitt Romney on Wednesday detailed his education proposals in a major policy address, laying out a plan to promote school choice and reform existing laws -- all while combating teachers' unions, whom Romney blamed for obstructing many of the needed changes in the nation's schools.

Talking to a Latino economic coalition, Mitt Romney says a good education and a healthy economy are two main issues he will on focus if elected president.

Romney assailed President Obama as beholden to powerful organized labor groups during a speech to the Latino Coalition here in the nation's capital.

In his speech, the former Massachusetts governor called improving public education "the civil rights issue of our era," saying that unions favor teachers' well being over students', leading to an education system that Romney said was "third-world" in nature.

"The teachers unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way. Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest," Romney said, quoting a former leader of the American Federation of Teachers. "He said, and I quote, 'When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children. The teachers unions don’t fight for our children. That’s our job.'"

Romney almost seem to draw on the experience of Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, each of whom have achieved a moderate amount of political traction by doing battle with teachers' unions in their respective states.

Antipathy between Romney and teachers' unions has deep roots, though, reaching back to Romney's tenure as governor in Massachusetts, when teachers' groups ran advertisements fighting Romney's implementation of a statewide test required for graduation. Romney mentioned the ad battle, which was not in his prepared remarks, and decried unions wielding "outsized influence in elections and campaigns."

"As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way," Romney said. "We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids."

Obama has stressed the importance of working with unions, an important Democratic Party constituency, in his past efforts to pursue education reform. A top adviser of Romney's suggested, though, that Romney would work around the powerful teachers' groups in implementing his agenda.

"The opposition is going to be led by the teachers unions which of course have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo," senior Romney adviser Eric Fehnrstrom told reporters on a conference call. "We are not handcuffed at all by the political limitations faced by president Obama, who is completely beholden to the union leadership."

Romney's most ambitious effort would be to greatly expand school choice programs for disadvantaged students and their parents in a way similar to the capital's D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. Romney's program would allow any low-income or special needs student (in the so-called Title One category) to attend any public or public charter school in their state, without regard to district.

"For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to the student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school of their choice," Romney said.

Romney told donors in April that he hoped to dramatically reshape -- but not eliminate -- the Department of Education, and also said Wednesday that he hopes to make the evaluation of schools and teachers a state responsibility, instead of a federal one, as it exists under President Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind law. Romney said that landmark law represented a "giant step forward," but was also "not without its weaknesses."

Romney advisers said before the speech that none of the presumptive GOP's proposals today would involve new federal spending.

There were some elements of the Romney plan, though, that were still wanting for details. His plans to improve teacher quality were ill-defined; Romney vowed to consolidate federal programs designed to boost teacher quality and block grant their funds -- about $4 billion dollars -- back to states that he asserted would adopt "innovative policies" for improving teacher quality.

And Romney only briefly touched upon his plans to increase the affordability of higher education, vowing to "stop fueling skyrocketing tuition prices," but providing no specifics in his speech as to how to accomplish such a task.

The Obama campaign savaged Romney's record on education before his speech had even been delivered, declaring Romney's views on education are just the latest example of a philosophy designed to help only those at the top.

“Mitt Romney’s career in both the private and public sectors has been guided by one principle: helping the wealthiest prosper by any means necessary, even if it means undermining workers and middle class families. These are the values that he would bring to the White House and that would prioritize budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans over good schools and affordable higher education," Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith said in a statement.