Rubio and Cruz circle education reform

Lauren Schneiderman

Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Texas), two possible GOP White House contenders, are making education reform their next big policy focus.

Rubio recently told donors he would focus on education in the next several weeks.

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He is planning to deliver a major speech on the issue in the near future that will likely concentrate on reforms to higher education. He recently stressed to allies the importance of making education accessible to people through reforms to career, college and community college education.

 "That’s been his focus for a while now,” said a Rubio aide.

Cruz teamed up with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), one of the most outspoken liberals in the House, on Saturday to call for school choice at a rally in Houston.

“School choice is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Every child in America deserves a fair chance at a quality education,” Cruz told KTRK, Houston’s ABC television affiliate.

Republicans in recent months have recognized they need to broaden their agenda to appeal to lower- and middle-income voters who voted overwhelmingly against Mitt Romney, then the Republican presidential nominee, in 2012.

Cruz, who along with other conservatives wants to expand charter schools and voucher programs, has been at the forefront of the push among influential Republicans for an agenda that resonates more broadly with working-class voters.

In August, he told conservative activists at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, Romney should have been more inclusive of lower-income Americans.

"Every policy we think about, we talk about, should focus like a laser on opportunity, on easing the means of assent up the economic ladder — on how it impacts the least well off among us,” he said. 

An aide to Cruz said reforms to give low-income students a greater variety of educational options has “been one of his strong policy preferences since he first entered the public arena, and it’s something he’ll continue to talk about.”  

Rubio last year introduced legislation to help families apply for more school options though a new tax credit. 

President Obama and Democrats have made income inequality a primary theme of the 2014 election year and have criticized Republicans for repeatedly bashing ObamaCare instead of offering constructive proposals for improving economic opportunity for all classes.

By moving to education reform and other conservative-oriented proposals to combat poverty, Rubio and Cruz are attempting to rebut the Democratic criticism.

A Senate Democratic aide said their proposals could be discussed when the chamber addresses the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act later in the year.

Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expects to introduce the Higher Education reauthorization in 2014. 

In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is at the vanguard of conservatives embracing education reform as part of an anti-poverty agenda.

“School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty, and we must act fast before it is too late for too many,” Cantor said at a speech at the Brookings Institution this month.