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Reauthorization Debate May Set Stage For Vocational Sector's Revitalization

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The Congressional debate that begins next month on the five-year reauthorization of federal vocational-education programs may mark a turning point for a sector that has languished in the shadow of the school-reform movement, spokesmen for interest groups say.

Although neither the Education Department nor key Congressional committees have yet made proposals, most of the major education groups--from the American Vocational Association to the Council of Chief State School Officers--have already weighed in with detailed recommendations for changes in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act. Changes they say would enhance both the quality and accountability of federally supported vocational programs.

"We believe this to be a very important reauthorization," said Michael D. Edwards, director of Congressional relations for the National Education Association. "Not just because it is an important federal program, but because this is a very important time in terms of the future of vocational education generally."

In recent years, precollegiate vocational programs have been shaken by the charge of education reformers that they fail to instill skills necessary for the contemporary workforce. And they have been hit at the same time with enrollment declines linked to the states' imposition of more stringent graduation requirements.

None of the education groups takes the position of the field's harshest critics--that all precollegiate students should take a "core" curriculum and that vocational training should be a postsecondary option. The educators' proposals all seek to strengthen existing efforts under the law, which expires Sept. 30.

And at least two groups--the National School Boards Association and the ava--are calling for raising the current $1-billion federal authorization by at least $500 million, even though appropriations have never reached the current ceiling.

In addition, the ccsso and some other groups would like to broaden the law's definition of vocational training to encompass technology; under its proposal, the term "vocational education" would be replaced by "vocational-technical education" in the law's language.

New Emphasis on Academics

Although some details of proposals being advanced reflect differences among the interest groups, they align in suggesting that secondary-level vocational programs place greater emphasis on academic preparation, closer links with community colleges, and more intensive efforts to hold administrators "accountable" for the success of their students.

The increased emphasis on academic preparation is aimed at least in part at helping secondary programs respond to the school-reform movement, lobbyists say.

"There has been a great rejuvenation of academic programs, but I think vocational educators feel passed by," said Gerald Morris, chief lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers.

Sixty-two percent of those respondto a recent survey of members of the school boards' association said the Perkins Act should stress the teaching of basic skills in vocational-education courses.

A prime goal of those seeking changes is to allow greater use of federal funds to revise curricula and train teachers to include more instruction in academic subjects within vocational classes--for example, by explaining the basic scientific principles involved in a technical operation.

Some proposals simply suggest that the Perkins Act should "encourage" curriculum integration. But others, such as that of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Education, urge creation of specific forms of assistance for curriculum revision and teacher collaboration on integration projects.

The state superintendents' council has proposed that the current law be amended to allow program-improvement funds to be used to train both vocational and academic instructors in bringing their curricula together.

Sponsors hope that such shifts would lessen conflicts with higher graduation standards, by allowing some enhanced vocational courses to satisfy academic requirements.

"2 + 2" Plans Urged

Projects establishing greater coordination--"articulation" in the specialists' argot--between secondary and postsecondary institutions, and between vocational education and other job-training initiatives also are popular.

One of the articulation proposals, a "tech-prep" bill introduced by Representative William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan, already has broad support among education groups.

The bill would provide $200 million in demonstration grants for "2 + 2" programs, in which students enter a vocational or technical track in their junior year of high school. After graduation, they can continue towards an associate degree at a local community college or technical institution.

Some districts around the country have already experimented with such curriculum-coordination plans, to generally favorable responses.

The ava, the c.c.s.s.o., and the American Association of School Administrators have thrown their support behind the proposal.

In the n.s.b.a. survey, 92 percent of the respondents favored efforts to harmonize vocational curricula with those of postsecondary institutions.

"If we are going to come out with a world-class workforce, then we need vocational education to be as desirable as college-prep programs,'' said Frank Mensel, an official of the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

Mr. Mensel said coordination efforts would increase the programs' quality and popularity, and would attract "a more serious student."

Many of the legislative suggestions also seek to encourage linkages with businesses, labor unions, and other agencies involved in employment and training, including those programs mandated in the recently enacted welfare-reform law.

The aft, for example, wants to fund local consortia that would coordinate all occupational-training efforts.

"We have to have some kind of sensible, thought-out approach to the needs," said Mr. Morris of the a.f.t. "Our plan will draw together the various entities--whoever gets together at the local level and applies [for a grant]--to sort out what is needed and have some oversight."

Accountability Standards

Another approach calls for wider use of performance standards. Advocates argue that federally supported programs should be held accountable for their successes and failures in preparing young people for viable employment.

Former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last year suggested that vocational programs should be assessed by performance standards, which would be determined by each state. The idea drew little attention in the Congress at the time, however.

A number of education lobbyists expect that some version of performance standards will be included in the department's upcoming legislative proposal. But department officials have declined to discuss the specifics of the package before it is officially unveiled.

At least as a general concept, performance standards do not appear likely to generate much resistance from interest groups. In their recommendations, most groups focused on such issues as what the standards should be, and by whom they should be set.

Possible standards include the rates at which students complete a course of instruction, or find jobs or further training upon graduation, as well as their scores on basic-skills tests.

The groups also emphasized that programs should not be judged by a single criterion, such as the job-placement rate, but rather according to a mixture of factors.

The a.a.s.a. has urged that standards be set at the local level, instead of by the states or the federal government.

To aid in monitoring the health of vocational programs nationally, many groups are urging that the reauthorization mandate systematic data collection, research, and evaluation.

Help for 'Special Populations'

While they debate the future direction of vocational programs, education groups and members of the Congress will also be renewing the struggles over funding and administrative control that have marked past reauthorization bills.

The sharpest battle is likely to come over the division of funds between assistance for the overall improvement of programs and "set-asides" for the handicapped, the disadvantaged, and other "special populations."

Current law allocates 43 percent of funds for program improvement, and 57 percent for special populations.

Several groups have called for increasing the share of funding allocated for overall improvement.

Organizations representing school administrators and state directors of vocational education favor a 50-50 split, for example, while the state school chiefs want the program-improvement share to reach 68 percent over five years.

But efforts to transfer funds from special populations to program improvement face strong opposition.

"We were among the leading advocates for assuring that adequate funds would serve special populations," said Mr. Edwards of the n.e.a. "We certainly would be very opposed to any provision to undermine the federal commitment to serve those who have been underserved in the past."

In an early draft of its reauthorization proposal, the a.v.a. had called for an equal division of funds between the two categories. However, leaders of the group decided last spring to drop the idea.

But most groups are willing to support changes allowing greater flexibility in the division of funds among the six different special populations. Existing law establishes specific set-asides, such as 10 percent for handicapped students and 8.5 percent for single parents.

The ccsso and the a.v.a. have proposed giving the Secretary of Education authority to allow states with different population needs to shift some of the funds.

The community-college groups have proposed that states be allowed to set spending for each set-aside within a target range, instead of having to meet an exact percentage.

Representatives of school administrators want the states to have complete discretion in determining the percentages for each special population, "as long as the state demonstrates that special students are being served."

Other specific suggestions affecting program administration include a proposal to allow local school representatives to negotiate with the Education Department over regulations for the law, and a proposal to strengthen the department's office of vocational and adult education by giving the assistant secretary for vocational education many of the powers currently assigned in the law to the Secretary of Education.

Postsecondary Funding

Another controversial recommendation would require that postsecondary institutions receive at least 40 percent of all Perkins funds. Groups representing secondary-school programs are likely to resist the provision, offered by the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges.

Currently, the law does not specify how funds are to be split between secondary and postsecondary institutions. A report by the National Assessment of Vocational Education released last fall showed a wide disparity in state distribution of funds. Some states direct all federal funds to postsecondary institutions, it found, while others direct their funds exclusively to secondary schools.

The national average of funds going to postsecondary institutions is 40 percent, the study indicated.

Lobbyists also will be pushing the Congress to increase the overall authorization level for vocational assistance.

"If what we are talking about is moving existing funds around between different goals, then we are not going to move this program forward," Mr. Edwards said.

But the call for additional resources may meet resistance, Mr. Edwards predicted.

"Many of the past champions of vocational education, like Carl Perkins and Robert Stafford, aren't there anymore," he said. "We have to embark on a rather significant education process and reinvigorate the Congress."

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