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political notebook

Romney faces tough questions on education proposals

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Mitt Romney greeted students in a music class at Universal Bluford Charter School in West Philadelphia on Thursday.

PHILADELPHIA - Mitt Romney struggled to find support for his education proposals while campaigning at an urban school Thursday, one day after declaring education the “civil rights issue of our era.’’

The visit, the first by the likely Republican presidential nominee to such a school, came as he begins to court a broader cross-section of the electorate he needs to defeat President Obama in November. In a speech Wednesday, Romney proposed expanding charter schools, which are privately run but funded by taxpayers, and creating a voucher system in which poor and disabled students could attend private schools, also using public money.

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But if praise was what he was looking for, Romney had a hard time finding any at the Universal Bluford Charter School in West Philadelphia, a largely African-American neighborhood facing economic, educational, and social challenges. Romney wants to deny a second term to the nation’s first black president, whose photograph hung in one of the school’s hallways.

During a round-table discussion, teachers and local education leaders rejected some of Romney’s education prescriptions, including his assertion that class size doesn’t matter. Romney also identified two-parent families as one of three keys to educational success, along with good teachers and strong leadership.

Local education leader Abdur-Rahim Islam pushed back, telling Romney that two-parent families are unrealistic in the community.

“We will never get to that second part described about having a two-parent situation, parent support, as a key component,’’ Rahim said.

Steven Morris, a music teacher at the school, disputed Romney’s assertion on class size.

“I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I’ve been teaching, over 10 years, 13 years, who would say that more students would benefit them. And I can’t think of a parent that would say, ‘I would like my kid to be in a room with a lot of kids,’ ’’ Morris said. “So I’m kind of wondering where this research comes from.’’

In response, Romney cited a study by the McKinsey consulting firm, which he said examined education systems in foreign countries and concluded that class size was not a significant issue.

While he struggled to win over the group, Romney does not necessarily expect to do well in Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold. Nor does the campaign expect to steal a significant block of the African-American vote from Obama in what is shaping up to be a close election.

But coming off a divisive Republican primary that was dominated by staunch conservatives, Romney is eager to expand his appeal to independents and moderate voters in swing states like Pennsylvania, where Obama defeated his Republican opponent by 10 points in 2008.

Romney returned to Massachusetts Thursday night for a fund-raiser at the home of John Connaughton, a former colleague at Bain Capital.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Senate panel OK’s plan to limit Hanscom cuts

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday adopted proposals by Senator Scott Brown that would block some scheduled cuts at Hanscom Air Force Base and spur construction of state-of-the-art research labs there.

The Air Force plans to shed several hundred workers at the base in Bedford later this year, but Brown’s amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act require the retention of a three-star general and enough personnel to maintain core functions of the facility’s Electronic Systems Center. They also urge the Air Force to proceed with a $450 million upgrade to Hanscom’s Lincoln Laboratory complex, which would be funded by MIT.

“By passing these amendments, the Senate Armed Services Committee reaffirmed the importance of what Massachusetts’ military, academic, advanced research and defense industrial base resources contribute to our national security,’’ Brown, a Republican, said in a statement.

Brown’s amendments will next be considered by the full Senate.

The House last week passed similar measures sponsored by Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat.

CALLUM BORCHERS

Senate rejects two plans on student loan rates

WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected dueling Democratic and Republican plans on Thursday for averting a July 1 doubling of interest rates on federal college loans for 7.4 million students, pushing back efforts to resolve the election-season showdown until next month.

In mostly party-line roll calls, senators voted 62-34 against the GOP package and 51-43 for the Democratic version, with each falling short of the 60 votes needed for approval. Though both defeats were preordained, the twin votes gave lawmakers from each party a chance to show they favor easing students’ financial burdens.

The Senate planned to leave town later Thursday for a Memorial Day recess running through next week. Neither party wants to be accused of letting the interest rates grow at a time when voters are focused on coping in today’s rough-edged economy, giving each side an incentive to eventually strike a compromise.

A 2007 law gradually reduced interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans for low- and middle-income students to 3.4 percent. To save money, it mandated that rates return to 6.8 percent for new loans as of July 1.

President Obama has made preventing a rate increase a priority and has appeared at colleges and on television talk shows to promote it. Though some Republicans expressed early concerns that retaining the lower rate would fuel college tuition increases, likely GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed freezing the rate and most GOP lawmakers have done the same.

Both measures rejected Thursday would delay the interest rate increase for a year, but each side’s bill was paid for in a way the other couldn’t tolerate. Democrats proposed raising Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on high-earning owners of some privately held companies and professional practices, while Republicans would abolish an Obama preventive health program.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Bill would boost regulation of foreign manufacturers

WASHINGTON - US regulators would inspect more drug manufacturing facilities in China, India, and other foreign countries as part of legislation approved Thursday that aims to step up oversight of the nation’s imported pharmaceutical supply.

The Senate bill, approved by a 96-1 vote, addresses a number of concerns about the safety and quality of imported medicines. It also gives regulators more tools to combat drug counterfeiting and shortages.

The legislation represents a major shift in how the government oversees the pharmaceutical industry. For more than 70 years, the Food and Drug Administration has focused its inspections on US factories. But over time, most companies have moved their operations overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and materials. Between 2001 and 2008 the number of US drugs made outside of the country doubled, according FDA figures. Today roughly 80 percent of the ingredients used in US medicines are made overseas.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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