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Romney's VP Pick of Paul Ryan Puts Spending Debate in the Spotlight

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Gov. Mitt Romney this morning announced that he's tapping Rep. Paul Ryan , R-Wis., for vice president, a move that puts the debate over how best to put the nation's fiscal house in order front-and-center in the presidential campaign.

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Ryan's controversial budget blueprint, which has been passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, would seek big cuts to discretionary spending (which includes most education programs). In fact, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the budget could have "disastrous consequences for America's children."

The Obama campaign has already blasted the pick, citing the potential impact of the Ryan budget on education spending.

"In naming Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy," said Jim Messina, an Obama campaign manager, in a statement. "The architect of the radical Republican House budget, Ryan, like Romney, proposed an additional $250,000 tax cut for millionaires, and deep cuts in education from Head Start to college aid."

Back in March, Duncan told the House Appropriations panel that oversees education spending that the Ryan budget could cut Title I grants to districts, which right now total $14.5 billion, by as much as $2.7 billion, while special education could be cut by as much as $2.2 billion. Special education state grants are currently funded at $11.6 billion.

Republicans have pointed out that Democrats can't really make those claims, since the Ryan budget doesn't spell out exactly what the magnitude of the cuts to individual programs would be—it just seeks big, overall cuts to discretionary spending (the broad category that funds education, as well as many other domestic programs).

Ryan's budget, which hasn't advanced very far in the Democratic-controlled Senate, also seeks big changes to the Pell Grant program, which offers grants to help low-income students attend college. The program has gotten pricier in recent years, thanks in part to very high demand for the grants as more students enroll in post-secondary education. The Ryan budget would seek to put Pell Grants on sounder fiscal ground through a series of programmatic changes that have gotten some higher education advocates very upset. But Ryan argues that increased federal student aid has had some unintended consequences, giving cover for colleges who want to jack-up their tuition prices.

Ryan's selection is sure to have big implications for a debate over the future of education spending currently underway in Congress. Right now, lawmakers are trying to figure out what to do about a set of across-the-board trigger cuts, estimated to be about 7.8 percent, that are set to hit a broad swath of domestic and military programs—including most programs in the U.S. Department of Education—early next year unless Congress acts to avert them.

Romney has said that if he's elected, he'd like Congress to come up with a short-term deal on the cuts so that he can help lawmakers come up with a long-term plan for the nation's fiscal future once he takes office in January. Romney had already endorsed Ryan's budget before picking him as his running mate. But by making Ryan his veep choice, Romney is sending a major signal about where he'd like those budget talks to go.

When it comes to K-12 policy, Ryan, like most GOP lawmakers, favors a big step back from the current federal accountability system at the center of the No Child Left Behind Act. In fact, he's a co-sponsor of the A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of many of the mandates of the NCLB law, as long as they agree to show student achievement gains.

And one of Ryan's early gigs was working as a speech writer for Bill Bennett, who served as Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan. Bennett was a big supporter of school choice and rigorous standards. He often clashed with the teachers' unions and others —but back in 1988, Bennett won praise from then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for his support of accountability.

The National Education Association, a 3-million-member union, is none-too-happy with Romney's choice.

"By selecting Ryan, Romney has doubled down on his view that opportunity is only for those who can afford it or are willing to game the system," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a statement released this morning.

But Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, applauded the pick. He said in an interview this morning that throughout the campaign, Romney has gotten flack from conservatives for simply being the anti-Obama and not being specific enough about what he would do. But picking Ryan as a vice-presidential nominee represents "a forceful embrace of principled conservative [positions] on fiscal responsibility, spending cuts and tax reform," said Hess, who blogs for edweek.org at Rick Hess Straight Up.

Photo: Gov. Mitt Romney, right, the Republican presidential candidate, introduces his vice presidential running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, on Saturday, Aug. 11, in Norfolk, Va. —Mary Altaffer/AP

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