Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney says American children are getting "a third-world education" because the system is failing them.

He also called education the "civil rights issue of our era," saying minority students suffer the most.

Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington on Wednesday, Romney blamed teachers' unions for wielding too much influence with Democrats. He says organized labor doesn't look out for students' best interests.

The Republican has proposed a voucher-style system that would allow low-income and disabled students to use federal funding to attend public schools, charter schools, or in some cases, private schools.

It's unclear how schools in areas that depend on the federal funding would fare. A Romney adviser says the proposal wouldn't include any new funding for education.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)