New York City charter schools this year had 51,473 applicants for 12,917 new seats. That leaves almost 40,000 heartbroken families who wanted their children to have a shot at the American dream that only quality education can provide.

The New York experience with charters is too typical. How can we squander so much human potential? How can we tolerate throwaway children being selected by luck of the draw and dreams being wasted? The short but accurate answer is: teacher unions.

The unions are true political heavyweights, with annual revenues over $600 million, more than both political parties combined. The National Education Association (NEA) alone was the largest contributor in the 2008 election cycle; over 90 percent went to Democrats.

Stacks of dollars that high buy clout, of course, and unions have used their clout to stifle development of charter schools. Limiting school choice in all forms is their top priority, since the union monopoly is threatened if families are free to choose better schools for their children.

That’s why Mitt Romney’s recent decision to take on the unions directly was so important. Top-level Republican pols tend to give the unions a wide berth. They can’t realistically hope for union support but they fear being seen as anti-teacher or even anti-education if they defy the unions. As a result, few Americans realize how much of our schools’ chronic underperformance and lack of improvement is due to the union influence.

But Romney was having none of it. In a speech to the Latino Coalition, he announced a bold reform plan of universal school choice, making schools responsible for transparency of results and compensating teachers for success. But he noted that realistically reform efforts always butt up against “entrenched interests.”

“The teacher unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way,” he said, noting their “fierce determination to keep things the way they are.”

Moreover they don’t fight for our children. The union’s attitude was clearly expressed by a former head of the American Federation of Teachers who once said “when schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.” He was simply saying the mission of unions is to look out for their members. What else would you expect?

Romney and the union official are right. In Detroit, a philanthropist offered $200 million to establish 15 charter schools in a city where they’re desperately needed. Under union pressure it was refused! Parents in Connecticut tried to pass “parent trigger” legislation so that they could directly intervene with failing schools. Unions were successful in shutting down their efforts. It goes on and on.

In his speech, Romney made it clear he wasn’t attacking the many dedicated, skilled teachers who do a great job. But he was blunt. “When your cause in life is preventing parents from a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you’re on the wrong side. You might even be in the wrong vocation, because good teachers put the interests of children first.”

Romney’s strong stand may even be good politics. While the economy and soaring debt dominate the national consciousness, Americans do worry about our mediocre educational system and its effect upon our future prospects. It seems to be dawning on them that more money, which the unions relentlessly demand, really hasn’t produced change.

Romney has a big advantage here because President Obama’s union handlers don’t permit him to participate in debates on meaningful education reform. This must be particularly embarrassing to him in the case of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships. This massively popular program provides $7,500 scholarships mostly to minority children fleeing D.C.’s wretched schools. It actually saves money and produces real academic improvement. But Obama is forced to oppose it, which he does, even though his daughters attend Sidwell Friends, an exclusive private school unavailable to the low-income children to whom he is denying a scholarship.

Whichever way the political winds, Romney said what needed to be said about the new civil rights issue of our time — equal educational opportunity for all.

Maybe he’s not the milquetoast the opposition would like us to think.

East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( is a retired physician and former state senator.

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