Washington (CNN) – Calling the nation's falling educational standards "the civil rights issue of our time," on Wednesday Mitt Romney proposed dramatically expanding school choice for low-income and disabled children.
Romney told members of the Latino Coalition gathered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that millions of American children were "getting a third-world education," adding: "America's minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era."
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The GOP hopeful said low-income and disabled students should be able to choose to attend any public or charter schools in a voucher-like program, with federal aid following them to their chosen schools. The campaign also proposed allowing students to apply those federal funds toward private schools when permitted by state law, or to use funds for a tutor or digital course.
Campaign advisers told reporters the plan would not require new federal spending. They did not discuss the plan's effect on schools largely supported by that same federal aid.
In his speech Romney offered a harsh rebuke to teachers unions – suggesting those who sought to bar school choice might consider a different profession – and accused President Barack Obama of being beholden to the powerful union lobby.
"The president can't have it both ways," Romney said. "He can't be the voice of the disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of the special interests."
While he largely backed former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program, Romney did call for a simpler and clearer school report card that would be accessible to parents and the community.
On Thursday, Romney will visit a charter school in Pennsylvania.
The educational policy speech is the latest in a campaign initiative to spend each week discussing a new policy issue.
The Obama re-election campaign was critical of Romney's education proposals on Wednesday. Ben LaBolt, the campaign's press secretary, said Romney's remarks were "vague" and "detail-less" on a conference call with reporters.
"In order to pay for his massive tax cuts weighted to the wealthy, Romney would have to make massive spending cuts in our schools, higher education and our job training programs," LaBolt said. "Those are not the priorities the American people want in their president."