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How Teaming on School Choice Helps Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander

By Alyson Klein — July 30, 2013 3 min read
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At first glance, GOP Senators Rand Paul and Lamar Alexander might seem like a bit of an odd couple. Although staunchly conservative, Alexander, of Tennessee, is often, ultimately, a dealmaker (witness his recent role in helping to broker a deal with Democrats on student loan interest rates, which ultimately got the support of nearly every Republican in the Senate).

On the other hand, Paul, of Kentucky, is a tea party superhero with a mixed record on compromise. Back in the fall of 2011, Paul used procedural maneuvers to gum up the works on a markup of bipartisan legislation to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He felt that negotiators hadn’t included conservatives in their discussions of the measure. And he said the bill, which Alexander very reluctantly supported, went too far in maintaining the federal role in K-12.

Flash forward nearly two years, though, and it’s clear Paul and Alexander have become buddies on a K-12 issue that unites most Republicans: school choice. And it’s a political win for pretty much everyone—maybe even some folks who oppose vouchers. (More on that below).

Earlier this year, the two teamed up on a budget amendment that would have allowed Title I dollars to follow students to the school of their choice, even a private school. And more recently, Paul cosponsored Alexander’s legislation to revamp the ESEA law, which would allow Title I money to follow students to charters and public schools, but not private schools.

How does it help Paul? He’s considered a potential GOP presidential contender, and it’s important for folks to see that he has expertise on key “kitchen table” issues, like education. Associating himself with Alexander, the Republicans’ main man in the Senate on K-12, is smart politics.

For his part, Alexander is giving Paul plenty of credit for his efforts, including at a round-table discussion on choice up on Capitol Hill today featuring District of Columbia public school activists, parents, and students.

“Rand attracts a lot of attention wherever he goes these days, and I’m glad he is attracting attention on charter schools and school choice,” said Alexander, who served as the U.S Secretary of Education. “Rand has emerged as our most effective advocate for freedom for teachers.” (Remember that quote, you may see it again on the future website of Rand Paul for America, sometime in 2016.)

And Paul isn’t alone here: Other up-and-coming GOP lawmakers are trying to grab the conservative mantle on education redesign generally, and school choice specifically. U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., the House Majority Leader, helped push through an amendment to the House GOP’s ESEA bill that would allow Title I dollars to follow children to public schools, including charters (an idea that Alexander and Paul had already championed over on the Senate side). And another potential GOP 2016 contender, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, recently met with a cadre of education groups to discuss K-12 funding issues, including Title I portability.

(It’s worth pointing out that Title I portability was a key part of Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential platform—and it didn’t land him in the White House.)

How does it help Alexander? Paul is a tea party rock star, and Alexander is facing potential tea party opposition in his home state (more in this Chattanooga Times Press story). It certainly doesn’t hurt Alexander to show that Paul is happy to associate with him on education, an issue where the senator from Tennessee is seen as a party leader. (More here.)

How does it help the school choice movement? Who wouldn’t want all this high-profile attention and new legislation?

How does it help some folks who aren’t fans of school choice? Well, in terms of getting an actual deal on an reauthorization of ESEA, it’s probably not so helpful. But, when it comes to ginning up opposition to the GOP on K-12 education, very few policies will get Democratic activists (particularly teachers’ unions) more riled up than vouchers.

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