Romney said he would let low-income and disabled students use federal money to attend public schools, public charter schools, and, in some cases, private schools. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

Charging that American students are getting a “third-world education” under President Barack Obama, Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney on May 23 proposed a voucher-style system that could significantly alter the public school system and revive the debate over school choice.

Romney, who has been reluctant to stray far from the economic issues at the core of the presidential campaign, outlined the proposal during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Millions of kids are getting a third-world education. And America’s minority children suffer the most,” Romney declared. “This is the civil-rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time.”

He continued: “President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine. As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America.”

Romney said he would let low-income and disabled students use federal money to attend public schools, public charter schools, and, in some cases, private schools. Federal funds could also be used for tutoring or digital courses.

The plan is line with GOP reforms aimed at giving students more educational choices. But it’s unclear how schools in areas that depend on the federal funding would fare.

The proposal was not expected to include any new federal money for education.

Romney so far has offered few details for his plans on several key policy areas, including foreign policy, health care, and education. He attacked Obama’s education policy and said it’s heavily influenced by campaign contributions from teachers’ unions.

“The teachers’ unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way,” Romney said. “The teachers unions don’t fight for our children.”

Romney’s attempts to link Obama with organized labor ignore the fact that representatives from the nation’s largest teachers unions have been unhappy with many of the president’s aggressive school-reform proposals, including his support for charter schools and using student achievement data to evaluate teachers.

The message is consistent for Romney, who regularly heaps criticism on the Democratic president’s policies but until now has only offered a vague road map for what he would do as president.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said May 23 that Romney’s shift to education was welcome after a campaign season in which he said the GOP rarely mentioned the issue.