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Mitt Romney said Tuesday that the federal government would not aid the 45 states who adopted the Common Core State Standards if he is elected.

“I don’t happen to agree that every time there’s a good idea … the federal government should finance the implementation,” said Romney, who has opposed a set of new national standards which the Obama administration has supported. “I’m not willing to add more spending to get people happy with me.”

Speaking at NBC’s Education Nation, the Republican presidential nominee fielded questions directly from audience members about testing, local control and unions.

He told one audience member that he “didn’t believe” a poll that found parents in New York City supported the teachers union more than they did Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “I know something about polls, and you can ask questions and get any answer you want,” he said.

Romney also repeated a charge he often makes about teachers unions: that they care about their members’ interests more than children. “The teachers union has every right to represent their members in the way they think is best,” he said. “But we have a right to say, ‘No, this is what we want to do.’”

Romney said he respected teachers’ right to strike, recently exercised in Chicago; his bigger problem was with the fact that the unions donate so heavily to political campaigns, mostly to Democratic candidates. It creates a “conflict of interest,” he said.

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President Obama was invited to attend the event but declined, instead giving a speech at the United Nations on Tuesday morning. In a prerecorded interview, Obama, who didn’t comment at the time, weighed in on the Chicago strike, saying he could understand both sides.

“It was very important for Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel to say let’s step up our game,” he said of his former chief of staff. “It was important for the teachers union to say let’s not just blame the teachers.”

Both candidates, however, spoke highly of teachers and the teaching profession in general.

“I really get frustrated when I hear teacher bashing as evidence of reform,” Obama said. “They work so hard. They’re putting money out of their pockets into the classroom every single day. They’re not doing it for the pay.”

Even so, Obama expressed his continued support for merit pay. “I think that pay for performance makes sense,” he said. Romney agreed that the best teachers should be more highly compensated.

Research has shown that merit pay does not have an impact on student achievement. And yet Romney and Obama also spoke of letting research guide school reforms.

“When we have good data that shows how do you improve schools, it shouldn’t just sit in a drawer,” Obama said. “We’re going to tell you what we think works.” Romney cited research showing that class size and per-pupil spending do not have a large impact on student achievement.

Romney also focused on the importance of parent involvement, frequently mentioning that he attempted to make parenting classes mandatory when he was governor of Massachusetts.

When it came to specific early education programs, though, he praised a few privately-run groups, like the Harlem Children Zone, and touched briefly on federal ones, including Head Start, which provides early childhood care for low-income families.

The Obama campaign has charged that a Romney administration would decimate the Head Start budget.

“We can evaluate where those have been effective and less effective,” Romney said of Head Start and other public programs.

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