Mitt Romney debuted his comprehensive proposal for education reform Wednesday, saying dramatic changes to the existing No Child Left Behind legislation were necessary and criticizing President Obama's ties to teachers' unions.
Speaking before The Latino Coalition in Washington D.C., the presumptive Republican nominee said he would allow low-income and special-needs students to choose from any school in the state they lived.
The speech was the first foray for the former Massachusetts governor into substantive social policy heading into the general election. And he made it before an Hispanic audience.
Romney has trailed substantially among Hispanic voters in early polls on the presidential race — they are expected to be a crucial voting bloc in the election. In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll released Wednesday, Obama led Romney among Hispanic voters by 34 percentage points, 61 to 27.
In Romney's remarks, he made no mention of immigration, the controversial wedge issue that he breaks with a majority of Hispanics on. During a screened question-and-answer session at the end of his speech, Romney said he saw "extraordinary economic opportunity" in Latin America, but avoided discussion of immigration reform.
He did, however, address the recent controversy over the Obama campaign's commercials critical of his tenure at Bain Capital. Romney characterized the ads as part of the president's "war on jobs creators" and accused Obama of "attacking success."
"In recent days we’ve heard a lot about business from the president, and if you’re feeling like you deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, I can’t blame you," Romney told the audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful business groups in Washington.
Romney also hammered Obama for his ties to teachers' unions, arguing unions "don't fight for our children."
"Education is one issue where it should be easy to find common purpose and common solutions. And 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. So President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses — and unwilling to stand up for kids," Romney said.
Romney later accused the president of wanting "it both ways" on education.
"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," Romney said. "President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine: as president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way. We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids."
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed Romney's address when speaking to reporters Wednesday morning.
“Is that the first time Governor Romney has mentioned education?" Carney asked. He went on to say that the president's reforms had made "significant progress” and that “the president looks forward to defending that record.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt later contended that for this president, teachers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
"The teacher's unions and the president don't always see eye to eye," LaBolt added, saying Obama was "certainly willing" to challenge the unions when necessary.
The majority of Romney's speech focused on his education agenda, and he sought to portray the issue in terms of civil rights.
"Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of kids are getting a third-world education. And, America’s minority children suffer the most. This is the civil-rights issue of our era. It’s the great challenge of our time," Romney said.
"As president, 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, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it," Romney said.
Oren Cass, Romney's domestic policy director, said on a conference call with reporters before the speech that students could also choose private schools, if allowed at the state level. That includes a renewal of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which awards federal funds to low-income students in the nation's capital to attend private schools. The controversial school voucher program was allowed to expire in 2009 and is opposed by Obama.
Cass did acknowledge that the reform would require a "mechanism to address the capacity" issues that could arise by opening up high-performing schools to students from across a state.
"We would require that states provide access outside the district, but recognize that any given district would have capacity requirements that would have to be addressed," Cass said.
Obama adviser James Kvaal discounted that proposal during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
"We know from experience that private school vouchers have failed to raise achievement and drain money from public schools that serve the vast majority of students," Kvaal said.
Romney went on to propose shifting federal evaluation of school progress to the state level, and mandating "report cards" to indicate school progress.
"Parents shouldn’t have to navigate a cryptic evaluation system to figure out how their kids’ schools are performing," he said. "States must provide a simple-to-read and widely available public report card that evaluates each school. These report cards will provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about student and school performance. States will continue to design their own standards and tests, but the report cards will provide information that parents can use to make informed choices," Romney said.
That proposal drew applause from the crowd of Hispanic business owners, seated at round luncheon tables at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building across from the White House. Each table featured a bottle of Tributo A Mi Padre tequila, a spirit produced by a company owned by Hector Barreto, the chairman of the host Latino Coalition.
Romney also proposed reforming federal student loan programs, with advisers saying that the programs now were overly cumbersome and flooded the market with tuition dollars that unnecessarily drove up tuition costs. Romney's advisers suggested that rolling back Obama's initiative to handle federal student loans directly — rather than through private banks — would help students by giving them access to bank's financial planning tools.
"Students must have access to a wide variety of options that will give them the skills they need for successful careers. We've got to stop fueling skyrocketing tuition prices that put higher education out of reach for some and leave others with crushing debt," Romney said.
Democrats have argued that allowing banks to originate and service federally backed loans costs taxpayers unnecessary money and serves as a backdoor subsidy, and LaBolt noted that tuition increases in Massachusetts exceeded those in other states.
"The president is tremendously proud of his student loan reforms. It's a great example of taking on the special interests," said Kvaal.
Toward the end of Romney's remarks, a young Latina woman in the crowd began yelling in protest, although her shouts were mostly drowned out by an applause line. She was quickly escorted outside of the ballroom by security.
On Thursday Romney will head to Philadelphia, where he plans to tour a charter school and participate in an education roundtable.
This post was updated at 4:15 p.m.