(CBS News) Republican nominee Mitt Romney said Tuesday that Democratic politicians have a conflict of interest in dealing with teacher unions because the unions contribute so heavily to their campaigns. He suggested that money should somehow be diverted or cut off, although he did not offer details.
Speaking in New York at Education Nation, a forum sponsored by NBC, Romney told interviewer Brian Williams that he is not necessarily against a right to strike. "I don't know that I would prevent teachers from being able to strike," he said, adding later that "allowing teachers to strike on matters such as compensation I think is a right that exists in this country."
The bigger problem, Romney said, is that "the person sitting across the table from them should not have received the largest campaign contribution from the teachers union themselves ... [It's] an extraordinary conflict of interest and something that should be addressed."
He later added that "we simply can't have" elected officials who have received large contributions from teachers sitting across from them at the bargaining table "supposedly" to represent the interests of children. "I think it's a mistake," Romney said. "I think we have to get the money out of the teachers unions going into campaigns. It's the wrong way for us to go. We've got to separate that."
The problem is broader than teacher unions, Romney said, but they are the issue when it comes to Democrats. "I don't mean to be terribly partisan but I kinda am," he said to laughter.
Romney was dismissive when a New York City school board member, also a parent, said city parents support the union to protect their kids three-to-one over the mayor and chancellor. "They believe actually that the unions are fighting for our kids," the man said. "This is not coming from me, this is coming from a poll of parents."
"I don't believe it for a minute," Romney said. "I know something about polls and I know you can ask questions to get any answer you want."
Romney attended an expensive private school, Cranbrook, when he was growing up in Michigan, and Williams asked him whether all kids deserve that kind of education. "That's not going to be available for the entire nation," Romney said. But he said that "a dollar number" doesn't always equate to an effective teacher and "I know that there are teachers in the public system who are every bit as good as those in the private system."
It's more important to focus on attracting and promoting good teachers, measuring student performance and giving students incentives to do well, Romney said. "We have proven that sending a lot of money to failed schools to pay the same teachers to do the same things will not make any difference," he said.