WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney on Wednesday proposed a significant restructuring of the American education system, one that would revamp the 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, but millions of 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. It’s the great challenge of our time.”

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Romney delivered the 25-minute speech in Washington at the US Chamber of Commerce, located several hundred yards from the White House offices he hopes to soon occupy. Although he was speaking to a gathering of Latino small business-owners – who had bottles of tequila sitting on each table—Romney never mentioned immigration policies and only mentioned the words “Latino” or “Hispanic” three times.

Instead, his remarks were tightly focused on sweeping changes to the education system. 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 it to attend a school of their choice, potentially including a private school.

Such an approach has been backed by several governors, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, 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 argues that 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 a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school,” Romney said.

Romney would also eliminate caps on charter schools, and require open-enrollment policies for any students.

Romney’s advisers said the plan included no additional federal funds.

Romney said he would continue backing the No Child Left Behind law, but said he would create reports cards that make it easier for parents to get information about the performance of their children’s schools.

Romney spoke little about higher education, saying only that students need more options and that the “skyrocketing tuition prices” should be stopped.

Even before Romney’s speech, President Obama’s campaign criticized the plan and said it would protect the wealthiest Americans while undermining the middle class. Obama’s campaign also criticized Romney’s record during his four year term as Massachusetts governor.

“We saw what happened under Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts—class sizes increased and thousands of teachers were laid off, college costs skyrocketed, and graduation rates at community colleges lagged behind the national average,” Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith said. “Now we know that he would make deep cuts to education to fund tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires.”

Romney said his plan would meet resistance – calling teachers’ unions “the clearest example of a group that has lost its way” – and accused President 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 kids,” Romney said. “We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.”