Calling it a “national education emergency,” Mitt Romney said Wednesday that poor and disabled children should be allowed to escape failing public schools by using federal money to attend private schools and other alternative settings.

Under a banner that read “A Chance for Every Child,” the likely GOP presidential nominee seized on K-12 education, an area that had so far been overlooked on the campaign trail. It is considered one of President Obama’s strengths, bringing him more bipartisan support than any other issue and winning him accolades from Republican governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio.

Romney borrowed from Obama, calling education “the civil rights issue of our era,” but then tried to draw a sharp contrast, saying the president is beholden to teachers unions and blaming him for rising college costs, among other things.

During his speech at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, Romney said he would “do everything in my power to reverse this decline” in America’s schools, adding that if it were not for the struggling economy and the housing crisis, education would be “the great cause of this campaign.”

Romney said he wants to expand choices for families so children can flee failing schools. His campaign released a white paper highlighting his support for federal vouchers — a plan to reroute tax dollars sent to public schools to help educate poor and disabled children, instead letting that money follow the students to private schools. The federal government will spend $48.8 billion this year on poor and disabled students.

Romney did not discuss how he would fix troubled public schools. He said No Child Left Behind, the federal education law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was too prescriptive in requiring failing schools to adopt specific turnaround strategies. Instead, he suggested that schools would feel pressure to improve if they had to issue public report cards documenting their performance, although No Child Left Behind already requires them to report such data.

Progressive groups said Romney’s approach would return the nation to a time without accountability. “We have a long history in this country — and you can see it in the civil rights struggle to desegregate schools — of states and districts not doing anything to provide an equal educational opportunity for all students,” said Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress.

Romney slammed the Obama administration for not funding next year’s budget for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by Congress in 2004 as the first and only vehicle to provide federal money for private-school vouchers for low-income children. He said he wants to expand the program to make it a “national showcase.”

A 2010 study by the Department of Education found “no conclusive evidence” that the D.C. program improved achievement, noting that students with vouchers had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to the scores of students without them, although they were more likely to graduate from high school.

Congressional supporters of the program, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), have been pushing the administration to fund the vouchers.

But the president believes the vouchers drain resources from public schools and do not help most students, James Kvaal, policy director for the Obama campaign, told reporters Wednesday. “Vouchers, which might serve a small number of students, will do nothing for the vast majority of students left behind in public schools,” he said.

Teachers unions are steadfastly opposed to vouchers.

“What Romney fails to understand is that when teachers and public schools have the resources they need, students win,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Real public education improvement comes from teachers, administrators, parents and communities rolling up their sleeves and working together to help all kids, not just some kids, succeed.”

The idea of vouchers, which has floated around for decades, began gaining traction across the country in 2010 after Republicans won majorities in several state legislatures. Louisiana, Indiana and other states have passed programs that allow poor and even middle-income children to use state tax dollars for private-school tuition. Some legal challenges have arisen regarding the constitutionality of giving public money to private religious schools.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, created by the late economist and free-market advocate Milton Friedman, welcomed the introduction of vouchers into the presidential campaign. “If you want to dramatically improve education, you have to give all parents the freedom to choose,” said Susan L. Meyers, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

In his speech, Romney lashed out at teachers unions, which he said are entrenched interests opposed to common-sense reforms.

“When your cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you are on the wrong side,” he said. “You might even be in the wrong vocation, because good teachers put the interests of children first.”

This week, Romney announced a team of education advisers that includes Rod Paige, a former education secretary who drew fire in 2004 when he called the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, a “terrorist organization.”

Romney also attacked Obama for his connections to the politically powerful unions, saying the president is talking about reform while “indulging” the groups that are blocking it. “He can’t be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of special interests,” Romney said. “We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.”

Teachers union leaders were attending a conference Wednesday to discuss ways to work with management to improve schools. “His speech demonstrates a complete disdain for public schools and educators,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “He’s completely out of touch with what is happening in schools and classrooms across the country.”