WASHINGTON -- Calling it a "national education emergency," Mitt Romney said Wednesday that poor and disabled children should be allowed to escape failing public schools by using federal dollars to pay for private schools and other alternative settings.
Under a banner that read "A Chance for Every Child," the likely GOP presidential nominee seized on K-12 education, an area that had so far been overlooked on the campaign trail.
It is also considered one of President Barack Obama's strengths, bringing him more bipartisan support than any other issue.
Romney borrowed from Obama, calling education "the civil rights issue of our era," but then tried to draw a contrast, saying the president was beholden to teacher unions and blaming him for escalating college costs.
During a speech before the Latino Coalition's annual Economic Summit in Washington, Romney said he would "do everything in my power to reverse this decline" in America's schools, adding that if it were not for the economic recession and housing crisis, education would be "the great cause of this campaign."
Romney said he wanted to expand choices for families.
His campaign released a white paper highlighting his support for federal vouchers -- a plan to reroute tax dollars sent to public schools to help educate poor and disabled children and instead let those dollars follow the children to private schools. The federal government will spend $48.8 billion this year to help educate poor and disabled children.
In his speech, Romney lashed out at teacher unions, which he said were entrenched interests opposed to reforms.
"When your cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you are on the wrong side," Romney said. "You might even be in the wrong vocation, because good teachers put the interests of children first."
Romney also attacked Obama for his connection to the politically powerful unions, saying the president is talking about reform while "indulging" the groups that are blocking it. "He can't be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of special interests," Romney said. "We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids."