Romney slams teachers unions

Wednesday , May 23, 2012 - 4:40 PM

Steven Thomma

WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney launched a blistering attack Wednesday on President Barack Obama and teachers unions, saying they're blocking crucial revisions to education and are hurting children, particularly young Latinos and other minorities.

"This is the civil rights issue of our time," Romney said. "President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses and unwilling to stand up for kids."

The Republican presidential candidate said he aimed to answer a "crisis" in U.S. education, one in which American schoolchildren rank 14th of 34 developed nations in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

"It's the great challenge of our time," he told a Washington meeting of the Latino Coalition, a small-business group.

He proposed a series of changes, including greater choice in public education, more charter schools and digital learning, and a one-two punch of less job security for poor teachers and higher pay for better ones.

His agenda wouldn't increase federal spending for elementary and high school education. Obama proposes to increase federal spending.

Among Romney's ideas:

--Allow low-income and special-needs students to choose any public or charter school or private school where allowed by local law.

--Require states to open all their schools to those students to increase choices.

--Eliminate limits on charter and digital schools, also to increase choices.

"I will expand choice in an unprecedented way," Romney said.

"I will give the parents of every low-income and special-needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school if permitted."

Many of the ideas were familiar, proposed in smaller form by Republicans for years without political success.

Romney blamed the teachers unions. "Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea," he said, "the unions protest the loudest."

He said the two largest unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, exerted influence by using union dues to funnel $600 million a year to political campaigns. In 2008, he added, the NEA spent more on campaigns than any other group did, and 90 percent of it went to Democrats.

"The teachers unions don't fight for our children. That's our job," he said. "And our job keeps getting harder because the unions wield outsized influence in elections and campaigns."

He suggested that Obama would be more supportive himself were it not for union influence. "I believe the president must be troubled by the lack of progress since he took office. Most likely, he would have liked to do more. But the teachers unions are one of the Democrats' biggest donors and one of the president's biggest campaign supporters."

Romney noted Democratic moves -- with Obama's support -- to kill a scholarship program in Washington that helps poor children -- 99 percent of them black or Latino -- transfer from poor public schools to parochial schools.

"It must have gone against his better instincts, but the unions wanted it so he went along," Romney said.

Romney urged expanding the Washington scholarship program as a test for the country. He also proposed turning $4 billion a year in federal teacher training grants into block grants to the states, contingent on the states adopting "innovative policies" that aides said would include changing teacher tenure protections.

The Obama campaign responded that Romney had a poor education record as the governor of Massachusetts, forcing deep cuts in spending and teacher layoffs while vetoing proposals to cut class sizes.

Obama campaign aides also disputed the value of the Washington scholarship program. "It has no impact on student achievement," said James Kvaal, the campaign's director of policy. "President Obama believes that . . . regardless of vouchers that might serve a small number of students, they'll do nothing for the vast majority of students who will be left behind in public schools."

The NEA criticized Romney for cutting education funding while he was governor and for backing a budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that the union said would cut federal education spending.

"Attacking educators and 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," NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said.

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(c)2012 the McClatchy Washington Bureau

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