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GOP Leaders in Congress Make School Choice Top Priority

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By Lauren Camera. Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog.

Be on the lookout for charter school or school voucher proposals to pop up early during the 114th Congress, as school choice legislation was named a top priority by the assumed Republican leaders in the House and in the Senate, which will flip to GOP control in January.

"We'll also consider legislation to help protect and expand America's emerging energy boom and to support innovative charter schools around the country," wrote Speaker of the House John Boehner and (for now) Republican Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell in a double-bylined op-ed in Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

"Enacting such measures early in the new session will signal that the logjam in Washington has been broken, and help to establish a foundation of certainty and stability that both parties can build upon," they wrote in what amounted to a broad outline of their priorities for the 114th Congress, which also include authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and passing a bill giving incentives for businesses to hire more veterans.

The focus on school choice is great news for Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, who has been champing at the bit for the Senate to take up a bipartisan charter school measure he ushered through the House in 2011. The bill would have allowed states to tap federal funds to replicate charter school models that have a track record of success. It also sought to help charters gain access to high-quality facilities and encourage states to work with charters to help them serve special populations, such as students in special education.

The Senate never acted on the 2011 bill, but more recently, Kline teamed up with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., to offer a similar version of the proposal.

School choice policies have become signature issues for a number of high-profile Republican senators widely seen as having presidential aspirations, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, both of whom have written or co-sponsored school choice bills.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who is slated to step up as chairman of the Senate education committee, has worked with Democrats, including Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose race was punted to December in a runoff, on a bill to revamp the federal charter-school-grant program.

Alexander also has a school choice proposal that would allow states to take almost all of their federal K-12 funds and combine them into one giant block grant aimed at creating scholarships for low-income students that could be used at any school, private or public.

So-called voucher programs, however, are much more divisive than proposals aimed at exanding charters.

In the Journal op-ed, Boehner and McConnell also pledged "a renewed effort to debate and vote on the many bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the Democratic Senate majority."

That's more good news for Kline, who said he's grown tired of crafting bills, including the charter school measure and more recently a slate of higher education proposals, then ushering them through the House on a bipartisan basis, only to watch them wilt in the Senate.

"In the House we've been moving along at a pretty steady pace and haven't been unable to get the Senate to follow suit," Kline said in a post-election interview with Education Week. "With a couple of exceptions on student loans and [the workforce investment bill], we've not been able to get any response from the Senate on some of the big stuff."

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