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Education gets top billing among lawmakers on Capitol Hill

By Kimberly Hefling

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 12:31 p.m. MDT

In this Jan. 8, 2014 file photo, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. speaks about The Value of School Choice: The Release of the 2013 Education Choice and Competition Index, at the Brookings Institute in 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.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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 at the top of issues important 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.

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