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Romney faces tough questions in event driving education agenda

PHILADELPHIA -- Mitt Romney took his newly-announced education agenda to a west Philadelphia charter school on Thursday, where he was met by tough questions from both inside and outside the school.

The former Massachusetts governor capped a week of campaigning devoted to education following a major policy address on Wednesday detailing an education plan emphasizing increased school choice and teacher accountability.

But during a roundtable discussion, Romney's faced disagreement from educators regarding his beliefs about class size, and he defended his views on the importance of the involvement of parents' in order to fix ailing public schools.

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Republican candidate Mitt Romney greets students in a third-grade computer technology class at Universal Bluford Charter School on May 24 in Philadelphia, Pa.

While Romney toured classrooms and spoke to students afterward, supporters of President Obama protested outside, attacking the former Massachusetts Governor's economic credentials, and mockingly accused him of only newfound interest in urban communities.

In the library of the Bluford Universal charter school, which has a predominantly African American and economically disadvantaged student body, Romney referred -- in more direct terms than in his policy speech yesterday -- to the achievement gap between white and minority students.

"The gap in the educational opportunity and achievement of people of color in this society, I believe is the civil rights issue of our time," Romney said.

Romney's education reform policy centers around encouraging school choice, and a question by the CEO of another Philadelphia charter school system cut to the heart of the matter.

"Whenever they talk about providing education for low income kids, they always talk about sending them to a school somewhere else," said David Hardy of Boys Latin of Philadelphia. "Why can't we have good schools in this neighborhood?"

Romney did not answer Hardy's question directly, but thanked him for it, and later expounded on his views about the importance of school choice, and that those choices must include options in the communities most in need.

Educators also challenged Romney over his belief, backed by a McKinsey study and stated often on the campaign trail, that class sizes are largely unimportant to student success, and not that small classes are not an educational panacea.

"It’s not the classroom size that is driving the success of [other nation's] school systems. And then [McKinsey] looked at it and said well what is driving the success of those school systems? It’s parents very involved and the idea of choice means you have chosen to be involved, parents are involved, excellent teachers, drawing teachers from the very best and brightest of graduates," Romney said. "And administrators that are able to guide the school with good policies of discipline and getting the right resources."

But another teacher on the panel contested Romney's statements, citing a separate report.

"There was a study done by the University of Tennessee, a definitive study about class size and what they said was that in first through third grade, if the class size is under 18 those kids stay ahead of everybody else all the way through school, including classes where you might have 25 in the class and co-teachers," the teacher said. "Those students lose their gains after a couple years. If you have small classes in those primary years, those most important years, that’s what makes the difference."

Romney rarely discusses social issues on the campaign trail, but today he made clear that his education policy has a home-based component as well, pointing several times to importance of an engaged, two-parent home in the progression of a child's education.

"Having two parents in a home makes an enormous difference," Romney said. "And so if we're thinking about the kids of tomorrow, trying to help move people to understand you know getting married and having families where there is a mom and a dad together has a big impact. And that's, in my view, that is critical down the road."

If Romney and his roundtable panel did not always agree, on specific policy points, the atmosphere in the conversation was collegial and productive. That was not the case on the West Philadelphia street corner nearby, where Obama campaign aides organized a protest and press conference with Philadelphia's Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter.

Nutter accused Romney of having "no record to stand on," regarding education from his time as Governor of Massachusetts, and mocked the presumptive GOP nominee for making an exceedingly rare visit to an economically depressed, urban, democratic and largely African American neighborhood.

"It’s nice that he decided this late in his time to see what a city like Philadelphia is about -- It’s May. The election’s in November. I’m not sure what he’s going to learn here today," Nutter said. "I don’t know that a one-day experience in the heart of West Philadelphia is enough to get you ready to run the United States of America.”

Today's campaign appearance will be Romney's final public stop in a short week, which a campaign adviser told reporters last week would be focused on education. After spending Monday and Tuesday raising money in New York, Romney unveiled his education policy in a speech Wednesday in Washington. Tonight, he returns to Boston for a fundraiser. For Romney, and the nation's schoolchildren still in class, this Memorial Day is a holiday weekend.