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School, Rights Groups Oppose Vocational-Ed. Block Grants

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Washington--The Reagan Administration's proposal to consolidate 11 federal vocational- and adult-education programs into a single block grant to states has come under intense criticism from several quarters in the education community, raising questions about the plan's chances for passage in the current legislative session.

Criticism of the proposal, which was introduced in the Senate on March 31 by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, centered on two points: the belief that it will not provide an adequate level of funding for all the purposes it hopes to serve; and the perception that it will not protect the rights of women, the handicapped, and other groups that historically have been underrepresented in vocational programs.

The bill requests a funding level of $500 million for vocational- and adult-education programs in fiscal 1983, down from $740 million in the current fiscal year.

Eliminates Regulations

It also eliminates many of the regulations added into the Vocational Education Act of 1963 ordering states to earmark funds for programs targeted toward women, the handicapped, and persons with limited English proficiency.

The bill would require each state to spend at least 30 percent of its block grant on projects related to state and local economic revitalization; another 30 percent for the strengthening of state and local vocational-education systems; and 13 percent for adult basic education.

Senator Hatch, in introducing the bill, said, "Very simply, this bill supports all vocational-training programs currently authorized; but this bill does not presume to set priorities for any of those purposes in any given states--it does not presume to tell state governments their business."

The Federal Education Project of the Lawyers's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law last week denounced the proposal as "anti-women legislation" and part of a continuing Administration effort "to weaken or destroy all existing federal initiatives to overcome the disadvantages women have suffered in employment, education, and job training.

"It completely ignores the fact that two out of three poor adults are women, that the proportion of the poor who are women is steadily increasing, and that poverty among women is related primarily to discrimination against them" in the marketplace and classroom and by restrictions imposed by child care, according to the group.

"The economically disadvantaged, a disproportionate number of whom are women, have always been poorly served in vocational education by state and local education agencies," the group continued. "This legislation would ensure that their needs were not met."

Jane A. Razeghi of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities added that the participation of handicapped students in vocational programs would certainly decrease if Congress adopts the proposal.

If Congress fails to specify that certain levels of funding be set aside to cover the extra cost of handicapped students' participation in the programs, as provided for under the current law, "things will return to the way that they were in the past," she said.

According to Gene Bottoms, executive director of the American Vocational Association, "the fuel to drive the purposes outlined in the legislation simply is not there."

"When you look at the list of activities that a state can undertake under the proposal, then look at the amount of money that is supposed to be shared by the 50 states, you have to ask yourself what can you reasonably expect to happen given these constraints," he said.

Attempts Supported

Mr. Bottoms said that his organization supports several aspects of the proposal, including its attempts to link vocational education to a region's economic development and to help meet employers' needs for a skilled and literate work force.

"The nature of work is changing in the United States in such a way that we need workers with higher levels of skills than ever before," he explained. "You could say that we need to 'retool' vocational education. But the level of funding proposed by the Administration would not allow us to do that. In fact, at those levels we will barely be able to keep up to date."

Mr. Bottoms' concerns were echoed by representatives of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education. Although the groups have not issued statements regarding the vocational- and adult-education consolidation proposal, both have passed reso-lutions in recent months signaling opposition to new federal block-grant proposals of any sort.

'Extremely Reluctant'

John Martin, a lobbyist for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that his organization "is extremely reluctant to support block-grant initiatives until the whole question of federal education funding is resolved."

"We want to be certain that the block-grant proposals are not just methods by which to reduce the federal budget," he explained.

Anita Epstein of the National Association of State Boards of Education added that "we have watched too many other federal block-grant programs fall by the wayside," pointing to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act and federal revenue sharing as examples.

"Our members are looking for a sign of commitment toward education from the Administration," she said. "We would like to see that commitment spelled out in dollars."

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