Mitt Romney vowed Wednesday to expand Washington’s school voucher program as part of a broader nationwide push for school choice, and he accused President Obama of failing to fulfill his own education promises from 2008 because he is too beholden to teachers unions.
Opening a new line of attack on the president, Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, said unions are the chief impediment to education reform, and that Mr. Obama has repeatedly sided with them instead of with parents and students attending failing schools.
The attack was part of an education speech Mr. Romney delivered in the nation’s capital to the Latino Coalition, a Hispanic small-business advocacy group, and signaled an astute political calculation: Hispanic voters regularly place education among their top issues, even higher than immigration, and they generally support vouchers and stricter school standards.
“Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of children are getting a Third World education. And America’s minority children suffer the most,” Mr. Romney said. “This is the civil rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time.”
Mr. Romney’s chief reform would be to give children who receive federal education money a choice of any public or charter school in their state or, in cases where it’s legal under state law, private schools. He also said he’ll push for more usable evaluations of schools so parents have the information they need to make choices, and said he’ll streamline federal teacher quality programs to reward states that are doing best at training and retaining good teachers.
In the most pointed part of his plan, Mr. Romney said he would fight the teachers unions, which he called “the clearest example of a group that has lost its way.” He said teachers unions have teamed up with Democrats to block reforms that have shown promise in Connecticut, Detroit and in the District, where the city’s voucher program has proved wildly popular with parents, but saw Democrats try to cut it.
“In the Opportunity Scholarships, the Democrats finally found the one federal program they are willing to cut. Why? Because success anywhere in our public schools is a rebuke to failure everywhere else,” Mr. Romney said. “That’s why the unions oppose even the most common-sense improvements.”
Driving his message home, he plans to visit a charter school in Philadelphia on Thursday.
The Obama campaign said voters should be wary of Mr. Romney’s promises, saying he cut education funding when he was governor of Massachusetts and has backed budget plans that would call for cuts to domestic spending, including education.
“He wants to apply Romney economics to education,” said Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman.
The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said Mr. Romney’s plans were a rehash of President George W. Bush’s education policy. The association also criticized the candidate’s list of education advisers, saying it was stacked with opponents of public schools.
The NEA endorsed Mr. Obama for re-election last July, well before the Republican nomination had been settled.
Both the White House and the NEA mocked Mr. Romney for speaking out now on education, saying if he cared about the issue he should have made it a bigger part of his primary election campaign.
Mr. Romney said if it weren’t for the economy, education would be the most important topic in this year’s election.
A number of Republican governors have won office in recent years on promises of education reforms, and highlighting education before a Hispanic audience could help Mr. Romney make inroads with that important group of voters.