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Tuesday, for the first time in this campaign, the subject of education bubbled to the surface and took center stage. At NBC News’ Education Nation, an annual summit to discuss the current state of education in the U.S. and the ways it can be improved, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney laid out their visions of how to keep America competitive in that arena.

Mitt Romney displayed a toned-down, less-aggressive position on the topic of unions. He did not call for their dissolution, but argued that their members should be held accountable. “The teachers’ union has every right to represent their members in the way they think is best,” Romney said. “But we have every right to say, ‘no, this is what we want to do,’ which is in the best interest of our children.”

Romney was also critical of the role of teachers’ unions in politics. He denounced the unions’ financial contributions to political campaigns, which he argued took the focus away from the 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 at the forum. “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.”

According to Romney, it is Democrats who primarily benefit:

But people are able to give — in the case of the Democratic Party, I don’t mean to be terribly partisan, but I kind of am — in the case of the Democratic Party, the largest contributors to the Democratic Party are the teachers’ unions, the federal teachers’ union.

In the course of his appearance, Romney reversed himself on his previous position on the importance of class size. He cited a report from the McKinsey Institute negating the impact of teacher-to-student ratios. “They said, first of all, within a normal band of population, that the classroom size didn’t seem to be driving the quality of education,” Romney said. “That — obviously at some extreme that would figure into it, be a major impact, but within the normal range that exists in schools, it wasn’t classroom size that was driving it.”

Organizations like Class Size Matters stress the benefits of class size reductions, with a special focus on New York but also the broader nation as a whole. Citing studies and statistics, the nonprofit organization chronicles the detriments of increasing class sizes, but also the improvements in smaller ones.

He suggested a reward system for the highest-performing teachers, where salaries would be merit-based according to test scores. Romney advocates a system in which students receive vouchers, and said that “fundamentally, choice is one of the ingredients of improving our schools.”

In a taped interview, President Obama criticized the shallowness of Romney’s claims. “They talk a good game about reform, but when you actually look at their budgets, they are talking about slashing our investment in education by 20 percent, 25 percent,’’ Obama said.

Meanwhile, Obama continued along with the idea of rewarding better performance:

What we’ve said to school districts is, ‘You’ve gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we’re going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we’re also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: Training teachers, providing them the professional development and support that they need.’

The president also responded to education reform and the recent strike in Chicago:

I just really get frustrated when I hear teacher-bashing as evidence of reform. My sister is a former teacher. She now works at the university, working with teachers. And I can tell you that they work so hard. They’re putting money out of their own pockets in the classroom every single day. They’re not doing it for the pay.

The first solution, he said, should be to attempt to train teachers who are lagging behind. Otherwise, if they cannot improve, those teachers should be fired.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

On a lighter note, Obama confessed to being a less-than-stellar student when he was young. “I would say I was a mediocre student until I got to college,” he admitted. “I goofed off way too much. Malia and Sasha are so far ahead of me, basically in all respects. They’re just better people than I was at their age.”

 

 

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