Mitt Romney made his first foray into education reform Wednesday, endorsing the use of vouchers to give parents a greater choice in educating their children while accusing President Obama of putting concerns of teachers unions ahead of students' interests.
Calling education the "civil rights issue of our era," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee outlined plans to use federal funds to allow low-income and disabled students to attend any public school, charter school or qualifying private institution in their state.
Romney proposed expanding the number of charter schools, requiring stricter state oversight of school performance and simplifying financial aid for college students. He pledged to expand a D.C. scholarship fund, opposed by Obama, which allows low-income children in the nation's capital to attend private schools, though he offered few other details of how he would pursue those goals if elected.
Romney praised education reforms implemented by then-President George W. Bush that Obama is now dismantling, saying the No Child Left Behind law "helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging the information gap" even though it was "not without its weaknesses."
In addition to laying out his own proposals, Romney used the address in front of the Latino Coalition at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington to attack teachers unions and said Obama is incapable of fixing the nation's underperforming schools because he was so beholden to those unions.
"President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses -- and unwilling to stand up for kids," Romney said. "He can't talk up reform while indulging the groups that block it. He can't be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of special interests."
Before his speech, Romney announced his new team of education advisers, including former Education Secretary Rod Paige, who once dubbed the National Education Association a "terrorist organization."
Wednesday's remarks marked a departure for Romney, whose presidential campaign has remained rigidly focused on the economy. It was one of the former Massachusetts governor's first efforts to expand his policy portfolio, and his appeal, ahead of the general election.
Critics were quick to point out that Romney once called for the elimination of the Education Department but changed positions when he ran for president four years ago.
And White House officials countered that Romney's criticisms of Obama were unfounded. The president not only gets high marks from voters for his handling of education, but won praise from Republicans for tying federal funding to school performance, they said.
"I think the president looks forward to defending that record, and it's certainly welcome after a long, long campaign season to know that the Republican candidate actually has something to say about education," said White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Union leaders dismissed Romney's speech as political maneuvering rather than a serious proposal to fix ailing schools.
"Today, Mitt Romney squandered an opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion of real education reform by attempting to disguise attacks on teachers and public education as meaningful policy proposals," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning."
Romney will continue his focus on education Thursday with a visit to a charter school in Pennsylvania.