WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney proposed a significant restructuring of the American education system on Wednesday, one that would revamp funding formulas, encourage more charter schools, and revive the debate over how poor and disabled students choose the schools they attend.
Saying the country is “in the midst of a national education emergency,’’ Romney lamented that the current education system does not live up to the country’s standards.
“Here we are in the most prosperous nation on earth, but millions of our kids are getting a Third World education,’’ Romney said. “And, America’s minority children suffer the most. This is the civil-rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time.’’
The speech was a significant departure from Romney’s laser-like emphasis on the economy, marking his first major non-economic proposals of the general election and illustrating a new focus on rolling out fresh policy proposals.
President Obama’s campaign almost immediately struck back at Romney’s proposals, branding them part of “Romney economics’’ that would benefit a select few while increasing the burden on many. They also criticized Romney’s record in Massachusetts, pointing to increased college tuition costs, greater class sizes, and cuts to education funding.
“Mitt Romney might not want to talk about his lackluster record in Massachusetts, but it’s an important window into what he would bring to the White House,’’ Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said on a conference call about three hours after Romney’s speech. “Romney’s Massachusetts record is not a model for the nation.’’
Romney delivered the 25-minute speech in Washington at the US Chamber of Commerce, which is several hundred yards from the White House he hopes to soon occupy. Although he was speaking to a gathering of Latino small business-owners - who had bottles of tequila on each table - Romney never mentioned immigration policies and only mentioned the words “Latino’’ or “Hispanic’’ three times.
But speaking before a Latino audience, the remarks allowed him to sidestep the immigration issues that have challenged his campaign and instead address another issue that strikes a chord among Hispanic voters who will prove vital in key states such as Colorado, Nevada, and Florida.
As Romney took the stage, a sign appeared behind him, “A Chance for Every Child.’’ Later, his campaign distributed a 35-page white paper that is among the most in-depth policy prescriptions so far.
The broadest change involves funding for special needs and low income students.
Right now, some $26 billion in federal funds goes to districts based on how many of those students - whose needs tend to increase the costs of education - attend their schools. Romney would instead provide a voucher of sorts that would allow each student to take the federal funds and use them to attend any in-state school of the family’s choice, potentially including private schools.
Such an approach has been backed by several governors, including former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, but has been adamantly opposed by teachers’ unions. Critics say the plan would only divert public funds away from those districts with the greatest needs and would do nothing to help failing schools.
Romney says increased competition among schools would be a good thing and said it will provide parents with more options for educating their children.
“For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to the student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school of their choice,’’ Romney said.
Education changes rarely came up in the Republican primary campaign, and Romney mentioned it only in the vaguest ways on the campaign trail. In April, he told a closed-door fund-raiser that he would either consolidate the Department of Education with another agency or “perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller,’’ according to NBC News and Wall Street Journal reporters who overheard the remarks.
Romney didn’t bring up such a proposal in his remarks Wednesday. His advisers said the plan included no additional federal funds.
Romney said he would continue backing the overarching goals of the No Child Left Behind law but said he would make several key changes. One would eliminate a provision requiring low-performing schools to overhaul their practices, which is part of the core mandate for improving schools. Another would create report cards that make it easier for parents to get information about the performance of their children’s schools.
Romney spoke relatively little about higher education, saying only that students need more options and that the “skyrocketing tuition prices’’ should be stemmed.
Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education under Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, called Romney’s plan to allow students to use federal funds to attend schools of their choice “naive.’’
“It doesn’t take into account how education is financed,’’ Reville said, noting that states and school districts pay about 90 percent of education costs. “I hate to see this kind of ideological voucher debate with special education students caught in the middle. I think he needs to go back to the drawing board and provide more details.’’
Reville praised several aspects of Romney’s education plan, such as his proposal to make transparent “report cards’’ on schools’ proficiencies and deficiencies available to parents.
“That’s a sensible idea,’’ he said. “We already do something similar in Massachusetts. Anything that improves the information available to parents is a good thing.’’
Romney said his plan would meet resistance - calling teachers unions “the clearest example of a group that has lost its way’’ - and accused Obama of being beholden to unions that are top Democratic donors.
“President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses - and unwilling to stand up for our kids,’’ Romney said. “We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.’’
But unions pushed back, saying that Romney’s proposals would harm the education system overall.
“Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning,’’ said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country.’’Globe correspondent Callum Borchers contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.