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Education Gets Top Billing on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers looking ahead to the November elections are putting renewed focus on education, tackling issues on Capitol Hill this week ranging from expanding charter schools to paying off student loan debt.

And, a House committee will examine how higher education and college sports might be affected by a regional National Labor Relations Board ruling allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize.

Voters rank education high among issues of importance to them, and this week’s activities are likely a nod to that.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has made expanding school choice options a priority. Reflecting that enthusiasm, the House as early as Thursday will consider legislation that would provide $300 million annually to expand charter schools. It would consolidate two existing programs, provide state grants to expand and replicate high-quality charter schools and fund the acquisition of buildings for the schools. Charter schools typically use taxpayer dollars but are run by outside organizations.

“America isn’t working when our students do not have the opportunity to attend a school that best fits their needs,” Cantor said in a statement.

Even as many Democrats adamantly oppose school vouchers, expanding high-quality charter schools is an area where the two sides have found some common ground. The charter schools bill, for example, has the support of Rep. George Miller, a California lawmaker who is the ranking Democrat on the House education committee. While it appeared to have a strong chance of House passage, its future was uncertain in the Senate.

Student loans, the subject of some contentious debate in 2013, are coming up again in both the House and Senate.

With the doubling of interest rates looming, Congress last year acted to keep them at low level levels for now—but linked those rates to the financial markets. President Barack Obama had trumpeted the issue in his 2012 re-election bid, and the legislation passed with bipartisan support.

Now, moving forward a Democratic agenda focused on college costs leading to the November election, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on Tuesday filed a bill co-sponsored by more than 20 fellow Democratic senators that would open the door for potentially millions of federal loan recipients to refinance that debt at the same rate as current recipients. Undergraduates, for example, qualify for loans at a 3.86 percentage rate.

Warren called the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt in America a “crisis that threatens our economy.” Her plan would fund the effort with a tax increase on wealthy Americans, but could potentially cost billions.

“I think bringing down the interest rates on existing student loans would be a huge benefit for young people who are trying to build some economic security and for this economy,” Warren said.

Miller and John Tierney, D-Mass., planned to file a companion bill in the House, and the group Progressive Change Campaign Committee said it would hold grassroots events this week in support.

Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., said Republican lawmakers are open to refinancing student loan debt, but have to be mindful of the cost to taxpayers.

“It’s also important we don’t drown the future generation in debt,” Messer said.

In a March Associated Press-GfK poll, education was one of the few issues where Democrats had an advantage over Republicans. In the poll, 25 percent of respondents favored the Democrats approach while 18 percent preferred the Republicans. But among a public disenchanted with both parties, more—29 percent—said they trust neither party on education. Another 26 percent said they trusted both equally.

Despite the renewed focus on education, it does not appear that Congress is close to rewriting the No Child Left Behind law that’s been up for renewal since 2007. The GOP-led House passed a rewrite of the law, but no vote has been scheduled on the Senate floor on a Democratic-run Senate education panel’s version.

Because of the congressional stalemate, the Obama administration has been issuing waivers allowing states—and in some cases districts—to ignore parts of the law if they come up with their own reform plans.

Miller said he’s getting less optimistic the law and another one up for renewal focused on higher education will pass this year.

“This nation has a lot of work to do on its education system but there’s some belief by a lot of people that the federal government doesn’t make any difference and we don’t need to do this, but the fact of the matter is we’re falling further and further behind internationally,” Miller said.

But the House was expected to take up a bill focused on research in education that would reauthorize and update entities such as the Institute of Education Sciences.

The regional NLRB ruling on college athletes unionizing also is attracting some attention in the Capitol.

In announcing the Thursday hearing, House Education Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., called the regional labor board’s decision a “radical departure from longstanding federal labor policies.”

The ruling in March said athletes were employees of the university and had the same rights to bargain collectively as other workers. Northwestern University football players cast secret ballots April 25 on whether to form a union, although the results aren’t expected to be released until after the full NLRB rules on Northwestern’s appeal.

Outside of Washington, lawmakers in several states are debating the future of the Common Core standards, which have been adopted in 44 states and the District of Columbia and spell out for each grade what math and English skills students should master.

On Monday, the group Collaborative for Student Success, which is backed by education foundations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said it would send representatives to Capitol Hill and to GOP congressional committee offices encouraging support for the standards even among opposition from the tea party wing of the party.

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