Romney: Bar teachers unions from giving to political campaigns

NEW YORK -- Mitt Romney said Tuesday that teachers unions should not be allowed to contribute to political campaigns, because their financial backing tips the negotiation process away from the interests of students.

“We simply can’t have a setting where the teachers unions are able to contribute tens of millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians and then those politicians, when elected, stand across from them at the bargaining table, supposedly to represent the interest of the kids. I think it’s a mistake,” Romney said during an appearance at NBC’s Education Nation. “I think we’ve got to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns. It’s the wrong way for us to go.”

Romney said Democrats reap the benefit from these contributions, and children suffer because the unions represent the interests of teachers, not students. But Romney went on to praise President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a Democrat.

“What I like about him is he said, look, I want to have this Race to the Top program which will give grants to states to encourage innovation and specifically that say we’re going to compensate teachers, based upon their performance, which I think is the right thing,” he said. “We’re going to insist on more school choice. I think that’s the right thing.”

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He demurred when asked whether he would retain Duncan in his Cabinet if elected.

Romney spoke for about 12 minutes to the crowd before taking questions from anchor Brian Williams and the crowd. He highlighted the quality of public schools in Massachusetts and the experience of taking part in his sons’ education, but did not mention that he sent the five to private school.

Romney said he learned during his tenure as governor that school funding and classroom size did not determine quality of education. He reiterated support for merit pay, using student performance to evaluate teachers, revising the tenure and seniority system, school choice, charter schools and retaining local control of education.

“I don’t want to step in and try to run schools for local school districts or for states. Education is largely run at the state level. But I do believe that there is action I can take at the federal level that will have an impact on improving the quality of education,” he said.

Romney said he does not believe there needs to be more federal funding of education, but would like federal dollars for poor and special-needs children to be attached to the student rather than a specific school district, so that parents can decide where the children go to school. And he would like to follow Florida’s lead in grading schools from A to F so that parents would clearly understand the schools’ performance.

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Williams contrasted Romney’s pricey private school education in Michigan, which would now cost nearly $39,000 a year, with a failing school in nearby Detroit where just one-fifth of the students graduate, to ask whether every child deserved the type of education that Romney received.

Romney said that it would be impossible to spend that much money on every child in the nation, but that spending did not determine whether a student would be successful. The quality of their teachers and the amount of support they received from home were the critical factors, he said.

“So I reject the idea that everybody has to have a, if you will, a Harvard expense level degree in order to be successful. I find a lot of people have degrees from a lot of different places, public and private, that are highly successful,” Romney said.

The GOP nominee repeatedly stressed the importance of parental involvement, saying he unsuccessfully sought to create classes for soon-to-be parents while governor of Massachusetts.

“I got some resistance from folks who said, well, the poor don’t have time to go to your class,” he said. “I said I’ll hold them on Sundays, hold them on weekends. I want people to understand the importance of parental involvement.”

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