PHILADELPHIA – Making a rare inner-city campaign stop, Mitt Romney preached the merits of traditional, two-parent families and touted his platform of educational choice at a West Philadelphia charter school.
The Republican presidential candidate had little political reason during the primaries to visit heavily Democratic neighborhoods such as Carroll Park. And his initial foray as the likely GOP nominee had more to do with outreach to suburban moderates than to African Americans, who are likely to give President Obama almost universal support.
When Romney’s campaign bus rolled up to the Universal Bluford Charter School on Thursday morning, he could see signs on the row houses across the street, including one that bore President Obama’s picture and the words, “We got your back.” Another read, “Stop Privatizing.”
Inside the neat, two-story brick school building, the welcome was much friendlier, though Romney was challenged during a roundtable discussion with educators to defend his claim that reducing class size doesn’t improve student performance. The former governor contends that smaller classes are a ploy by teachers unions — one of his favorite targets — to get more teachers hired.
Steven Morris, who teaches music, told Romney, “I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I have been teaching, 13 years, who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit. And I can’t think of a parent that would say I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.”
Ronald Benner, whose technology classes range from 23 to 28 students, chimed in that “you can give more personalized attention to each student if you have a smaller class size.” Another teacher stressed the importance of keeping classes to no more than 18 students in the critical early primary grades.
Romney, in a blue tie and white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, acknowledged that “if you had a class of five that would be terrific. If you had a class of 50, that’s impossible.” But he said a McKinsey Global Institute study had compared U.S. student performance with countries like Singapore, South Korea and Finland and found that class size didn’t matter.
“Gosh, schools that are the highest performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems,” Romney said. Instead, parental involvement and top-flight teachers and administrators are what makes the difference, he said.
Romney reiterated his contention that “the gap in educational opportunity and achievement of people of color in this society, I believe, is the civil rights issue of our time.” He added that “having two parents in a home makes an enormous difference. And so if we’re thinking about the kids of tomorrow, trying to help move people to understand, you know, getting married and having families where there’s a mom and a dad together has a big impact. That’s, in my view, that’s a critical down-the-road for those that are already in a setting where they don’t have two parents.”
Creating jobs for minority parents is also crucial, Romney said, adding that “in many cases” it’s not possible to have “intact families.”
Later, as Romney was touring the all-black school, which the city school district turned over to a charter operator two years ago in an effort to improve student achievement, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter held a press conference on a sidewalk outside blasting the Republican’s visit.
“I don’t know why this guy’s here,” said Nutter, standing behind an Obama campaign sign. Romney “has suddenly somehow found West Philadelphia, somehow now wants to talk about education.”
But the Democrat questioned whether Romney would learn much in a visit lasting less than two hours.
“I don’t know that a one-day experience in the heart of West Philadelphia is enough to get you ready to run the United States of America,” said Nutter, surrounded by several dozen chanting Obama supporters and neighborhood residents.
“Mitt Romney running his financial services firm put people out of work, damaged Americans, damaged families, caused people to lose their jobs, possibly lose their homes and all of that,” the mayor said.
“So let’s talk about that. You want to have an urban experience? You want to have a West Philly experience? Then come out here and talk to somebody in West Philly.”