Commentary

Cutting Vocational Educational Could Kill Its Momentum

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Will Rogers once quipped that the business of government is to keep the government out of business--that is, unless business needs government aid.

That is precisely the dilemma facing businesspeople today, from Peoria, Ill., to Savannah, Ga. Although fed up with rising taxes and increasing government regulations, they either directly or indirectly count on some form of federal assistance, sometimes more than they realize.

Public vocational education is a case in point. Employers depend on their public schools to provide vocationally prepared workers to fill their employment needs, and the federal government helps support that vocational education and training. Federal support is not likely to continue, however, as it has in recent years, and the consequences may be more severe than people have been led to believe.

Despite the history of federal investment in vocational education, few businesspeople--or, for that matter, few school-board members or state legislators--are aware of how and to what extent vocational education relies on federal funds.

The Department of Education is partly responsible for the ignorance, as it feeds policymakers information from a myopic computer that digests only data for the single most prominent federal vocational education program: the Vocational Education Act (VEA) of 1963, as amended in 1976. Analysts who attempt to scrutinize the reported expenditure data from the VEA appropriations may come to the conclusion that the proposed cuts aren't too serious. After all, the $660 million that was allocated to the states and territories in 1979 represented less than 10 percent of total expenditures on vocational education. A reduction of even 20 percent in VEA funds would appear to reduce total resources by less than 2 percent, hardly enough to bring the enterprise to its knees.

It is a mistake, however, to focus narrowly and exclusively on the aggregate Vocational Education Act funds. To do so would not reveal the real losses of revenue from the assortment of other federal programs and agencies that contribute to the resource base of public vocational education. These include CETA, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Farmers Home Administration, the G.I. Bill, student aid and loan programs, Social Security, and other Department of Education programs. It also would not reveal the impact on specific national objectives, such as program improvement and expansion and serving special populations like the disadvantaged and handicapped.

Moreover, at the same time that many federal programs are shrinking, the local sources of revenue that are expected to make up the losses are becoming hamstrung by tax rebellions.

The collective result of changes in the federal programs that support vocational education cannot be determined by simple arithmetic. There is a synergism that produces results beyond what a single policy could produce. Conversely, to eliminate parts may cause greater overall losses than anticipated. It is worth taking a look at those different parts.

The major piece of legislation affecting occupational programs is, of course, the Vocational Education Act of 1963. Vocational education has been supported in part by federal funds ever since the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 initiated the federal role in public education. That role was much larger in the past, at least in terms of dollars. In 1940, federal funds represented 36 percent of the total expenditures. In 1965, after the new legislation was in place, federal funds accounted for 27 percent of the total reported expenditures. By 1972, however, the VEA contribution was down to 18 percent, and in 1979 it dropped to only about 9 percent of the total reported expenditures.

This steady reduction in federal aid is not due to smaller appropriations but to the simple fact that the dollars have neither kept pace with inflation nor with the growth of enrollment in vocational education. In real dollars, the 1979 federal appropriation only had about two-thirds of the purchasing power that the same amount had in 1972. At the same time that the worth of the federal dollars was diminishing, enrollments in vocational education programs leaped from under 12 million in 1972 to more than 17 million in 1979, an increase of almost 50 percent. Thus, in real dollars, the VEA allocation per student dropped dramatically, to less than half of the 1972 figure.

This is hardly the portrait of the swelling federal program greedily absorbing tax dollars that is painted by critics of federal aid to public schools. Indeed, vocational-education policy represents a paradox in that it is expected to accomplish more and more with relatively fewer and fewer federal dollars.

Particularly in small-to-medium-sized cities, the point is fast approaching at which the money may not be enough to produce any results, not to mention the far-reaching results desired. In a Congressionally mandated survey of 10 states conducted in 1979 by the University of California at Berkeley, 20 percent of the high schools received no VEA funds; these districts most often attributed their lack of involvement to the size of the allotment not being worth the application and reporting burden. A 25 percent reduction in VEA funds, with continued inflation, would put the federal share from the VEA at less than 5 percent, and would leave many more districts in the position of either refusing or not applying for federal funds.

Given the low level of VEA funding in recent years, all of the strides that have been made in vocational education--such as expanding and improving programs and serving people who have historically been underserved--cannot be solely attributed to the VEA. There is other legislation directly affecting such programs that also must be considered as part of a comprehensive vocational-education policy.

Some of the legislation is not conventionally regarded as vocational-education policy, although it certainly affects services. One of the most persistent aims of federal policy has been to expand and improve public vocational education. Even though the VEA only exhorts and does not require districts to use federal funds for this purpose, expansion and improvement are clearly taking place. As evidence of success, vocational educators are apt to point to the new technical institutes and area vocational-technical centers that have sprung up across the nation.

These new, modern plants, however, are often not a result of the vocational-education legislation but are instead a product of other federal programs, namely the Appalachian Regional Development and Public Works and Economic Development Acts of 1965. It is doubtful that school districts would have been able to accomplish the intensive expansion of facilities and programs that has occurred without the prodigious efforts of these ostensibly noneducation federal programs. Yet their role has been obscured and even ignored in education policy.

The two development programs mentioned, plus the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Development Act, have invested more in public vocational-education school construction than has the VEA in recent years--over a billion and a half dollars. Education has been the second largest line item expenditure of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which has supported the building of 700 area vocational centers throughout the Appalachian region. More important, all these development-program funds have all gone for improvement and expansion--new facilities, equipment, repairs, and demonstration programs--and they have been targeted to depressed areas that have the greatest need for the occupational training.

Thus the modernization of vocational education over the last decade and a half drew its inspiration, and its funding, from the economic development programs as much as from the Vocational Education Act. It is unlikely, however, that much more support will be forthcoming. The economic development programs have been cut to where they are forced to direct their remaining resources elsewhere. Unfortunately, their job is not complete. There are still many parts of the country without adequate facilities or programs. In Texas, for instance, over half of the school districts are still unable to offer students more vocational education than agriculture, consumer, and homemaking education.

The loss of support from these development programs may have little effect on the maintenance of existing programs, but it is bound to slow down growth and modernization. Given the current mood of fiscal austerity coupled with exorbitant interest rates, new school-bond issues are going to have a rough time making it on their own in the near future.

The development legislation is not the only source of funding for vocational education aside from the VEA. No discussion of vocational-education policy would be complete without acknowledging the undefined but substantial part that CETA plays, particularly in serving the disadvantaged. CETA expenditures do not show up in Department of Education reports, yet we know, based on an extensive survey conducted by the University of California in 1979, that the use of CETA funds by public schools is considerable. Furthermore, the targeting of the money to the low-income students is consistent with the social aims of vocational education policy.

Unfortunately no one knows just how much of the CETA money goes to schools for vocational-education programs; there are only more or less "educated" guesses. My own estimate is that about $550 million went directly to public vocational-education programs in fiscal 1979 and another $250 million was paid out to students in the form of stipends. About 60 percent of the CETA funds for that year came from Title VI, Public Service Employment (PSE), which is being eliminated. Therefore most of the $550 million will not be available in the future. Many state and local education agencies have come to depend on PSE employees and, regardless of the legitimacy of that dependency, the fact remains that it will reduce the capacity of the vocational-education enterprise.

There are other programs within education that help support vocational education, often in quite inconspicuous ways, but with sizable contributions nevertheless. Most secondary vocational education still takes place in the comprehensive high school, which depends on sources of federal funds not directly targeted to vocational education but which become part of the district budget that supports vocational programs. These programs include Impact Aid, Emergency School Assistance, and Aid for the Handicapped. Assuming that vocational education courses receive their proportionate share of the districts' funds with respect to their enrollments, these programs would have provided about $135 million to vocational education in fiscal 1979--25 percent of the total VEA expenditures in secondary schools. Reductions in these programs would not be uniformly or universally harmful, but in those districts that depend on particular programs, the effects on vocational education--generally regarded as high-cost programs--could be disastrous.

Last but by no means least important of the programs assisting vocational education are the student-aid programs. They are targeted primarily to low-income postsecondary and adult students--whose enrollments account for 40 percent of all vocational enrollments and 60 percent of the occupationally specific enrollments (excluding consumer and homemaking education, industrial arts, and avocational courses). Many of those students would not have enrolled without student aid or loans.

In 1979, nearly $1 billion went for various forms of student assistance: $470 mil-lion from the G.I. Bill; $195 million from Social Security Survivors Benefits; and $135 million from Basic and Supplemental Equal Opportunity Grants. Another $150 million in loans and work-study funds went to vocational-education students.

How many of these students were dependent on assistance can only be guessed. Although some who received federal aid assuredly would have found a way to enroll even without aid, enrollments in postsecondary and adult programs certainly would have been somewhat lower.

Tuition composes a significant share of the income of postsecondary institutions--probably about $900 million in fiscal 1979--part of this coming from federal student-aid programs. This is nearly 40 percent of the total combined federal, state, and local expenditures reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

What happens when we extend our analysis of vocational education policy beyond the VEA legislation and assemble all of the financial pieces as shown in the table? The first thing we notice is that the true federal investment is not the 9 or 10 percent conventionally accepted, but is instead about 20 percent for secondary programs and about 16 percent for postsecondary or adult programs, excluding tuition aid. But when tuition aid, which draws on federal funds, is included in this analysis, the proportion of direct and indirect federal funds rises to about 40 percent for postsecondary and adult programs. Some programs that are forcing vocational education in the direction of specific national priorities have been cut even more than VEA. Therefore the consequences of the aggregate reductions or potential reductions (since many are still in doubt) may have effects greater than the loss of funds would suggest.

The programs that have been affected the most are those that happen to support the VEA goals of program improvement and expansion and services for the disadvantaged and handicapped. With the paring down of the economic development programs, it is unlikely that the modernization of vocational education will continue as it has in the past. The "losers" will include those living in depressed parts of the country which still lack quality programs.

Reductions in VEA expenditures will not affect programs and services uniformly. The activities that depend most heavily on federal assistance--such as state-level support functions, including research, curriculum development, technical assistance, promotion of sex equity, and the services for the handicapped and the disadvantaged--are the most vulnerable. Since in most states these services receive between 40 and 100 percent of their funds from the federal government, they will be affected most acutely. CETA reductions, too, will limit participation of low-income students.

Programs with overlapping aims that operate independent of one another are inefficient. They lead to analyses of consequences that, at best, are fragmented. At worst, they can be misleading.

Furthermore, whatever influence the government can exert on schools is dependent on the leverage--the funds available. There is a critical mass below which national policy loses it potency. It appears that a momentum has built toward the fulfillment of national goals for vocational education such as modernization, relevancy to jobs, sex equity, and open access. Excessive cuts in the wrong places could kill this momentum, and along with it the chance to make uniformly high-quality vocational education available to all.

Vol. 01, Issue 24, Page 18-19

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