"The person sitting across the table from them should not have received the biggest contributions from the teachers' union itself," Romney said when asked about the recently concluded Chicago teachers' strike, taking a shot at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former White House Chief of Staff.
Romney said the teachers' unions have "every right to represent" their interests, which in his view are themselves, but that "We have a right to say this is what we want to do which is in the best interest of our children."
The former governor seemed at ease on the subject, delving into his own experience in Massachusetts to argue that classroom size and the amount of money given to school districts didn't affect results as much as being able to hire and reward good teachers as well as parents' own commitment to their children's education. He provided substantially more detail and seemed more at ease discussing the the policy nuances on this subject he has on some other topics during the campaign.
Romney even complimented Obama Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has pushed for some more school choice and for merit-based teacher pay.
"What I like about him is he said 'Look, I want to have this race to the top program … we're going to compensate teachers based on their performance,' which I think is the right thing," Romney said, while jovially ducking questions from event moderator Brian Williams about whether he'd consider Duncan for his own cabinet.
Romney looked for more common ground in this discussion than he did during the primary, when he accused Obama of taking "marching orders from union bosses," or even than he had recently, when he said Obama had "chosen his side" in the Chicago strike and that Romney instead sided "with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed."
Earlier in the day, Obama had attacked Romney's tone and views on policy, accusing him of using "teacher-bashing as evidence of reform" and that while Romney and Republicans "talk a good game about reform … they are talking about slashing our investment in education by 20 percent, 25 percent."
Romney repeated many previously stated policy promises: To connect federal education money to students rather than school districts so they would be able to choose between schools, for schools to get graded on an A to F scale in order to give parents more information about school choice, for higher pay for starting salaried teachers and for more flexibility in hiring and firing them, and for more flexibility at the state level rather than a federally proscribed education standard. He also defended test-based evaluations, but said he was open to reforming those tests. He also said there was already enough federal spending on education.
"I'm not looking for more federal spending. It is the nature of politics for someone in my position to promise more free stuff," he said. "I really care about education. I care so much about our kids that I don't want to saddle them with trillions and trillions of dollars of debt."