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Senate Republicans Push Federal Voucher Program in Budget Debate

Parents would be able to take their child's Title I dollars to any school of their choice—including a private school—under a budget amendment written by two very high profile Republican senators: Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a tea party darling, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top GOP lawmaker on the Senate education committee.

Does the policy sound familiar? It should if you were following the presidential election. It's very similar to the policies Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, pushed during the 2012 election.

The amendment probably won't make much of a difference to the budget process—it's unlikely to pass the Democratic controlled Senate. And even if it does, the budget blueprint isn't likely to be joined with a House version to help guide spending decisions. Republicans and Democrats have gone off in two very different directions on their budget proposals, with the House GOP seeking to crack down on domestic spending in order to rein in the deficit, and Senate Democrats calling for more investment in areas like education, coupled with tax changes and cuts to some military and domestic programs.

But the debate lawmakers will have over this amendment—and the proposal's sponsors—are very interesting.

Paul is considered a Senate firebrand—he famously threw a monkey wrench into the Senate markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act back in 2011, and had planned to introduce more than 70 amendments to the bill. Alexander, on the other hand, supports school choice, but has also been seen as a lawmaker who can work across the aisle on K-12 policy. (He was one of just three Republicans on the committee who ultimately supported the Senate ESEA bill way back in 2011.)

The fact that they're teaming up together on school choice means that it's something that Republicans of all stripes are embracing in a big way. (Other key Republicans, including Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House majority leader, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible presidential contender, have been all over choice lately too.)

What does this mean for ESEA prospects? If Republicans in Congress refuse to support an ESEA reauthorization measure that doesn't include vouchers, it might make an already very tough reauthorization even tougher. Vouchers are considered a wedge issue. It would be hard to get many congressional Democrats on a bill that includes them—although, to be fair, vouchers are beginning to gain traction in some districts and states, even among some Democrats.

Sen. Tom Harkin, the education committee chairman, told the Council of Chief State School Officers this week he'd like to get moving on an ESEA bill by the summer. But most advocates still don't expect to see ESEA finished this year...or anytime soon.

Still, the move definitely jives with what other Republicans have been saying about school choice lately. Romney lost among female voters and minorities in the last presidential election. Are vouchers a way to win those folks over? Comments section is open!

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