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Divisions on 'Set-Asides' Color Vocational Hearing

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Washington--The targeting of federal vocational-education funds for special populations has become the most hotly contested issue in the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act.

"Set-asides is where the action is going to be," according to Carl C. Perkins, Democrat of Kentucky and son of the lawmaker for whom the law is named.

"And there is going to be blood from this committee before the battle is over," Mr. Perkins said at last week's hearing before the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee.

Republicans on the committee appeared to be setting the stage to propose the partial or total elimination of the set-asides.

Currently, 57 percent of the act's basic grant funds are targeted to special populations, with the rest going for program improvement.

Twenty-two percent of the set-aside funds must go to disadvantaged individuals, 12 percent to adults, 10 percent to handicapped individuals, 8.5 percent to single parents and displaced homemakers, 3.5 percent to eliminate sex bias, and 1 percent to criminal offenders.

'Do Away With Set-Asides'

"We need to do away with these set-asides," said Fred Grandy, Re4publican of Iowa. He argued that because the set-asides often result in grants that are too small for districts to use, many return the funds to the state for reallocation. And some districts, he said, have difficulty meeting the funds' matching requirements.

"Why doesn't this argue for creating a program that allows the federal government to authorize funds but lets [school administrators] determine how to spend it," Mr. Grandy asked the representatives of several education organizations testifying before the committee.

Set-asides, the Representative contended, "are indicative of an attitude that is not that prevalent in this country anymore."

Steve Gunderson, Republican of Wisconsin, suggested that the act establish "a kind of block-grant commitment to excellence" in which school districts would contract directly with the Education Department for technical-training grants.

Peter Smith, Republican of Vermont, made a similar proposal. His plan would allow local school districts "that are not satisfied with the job they are doing or with the federal regulatory burden" to contract with the federal government to implement a plan that "commits to higher performance" in return for freedom from federal regulation.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Gunderson said their proposals would be optional and should not apply to all Perkins funds.

Set-Asides Defendend

The ideas were received cautiously by the panelists who testified before the subcommittee.

"We want some funds driven directly to the local level, but as we review the past, we find that some districts that most need the funds often don't have the staff to put forward an application for a grant," said James Oglesby, president of the National School Boards Association.

Neil Edmunds, president of the American Vocational Association, defended the set-asides but argued in favor of more flexibility.

"We know that specific populations have the greatest need, and that traditionally they do not get served," Mr. Edmunds said. "We think vocational education ought to be there for them."

The a.v.a. has proposed that the secretary of education be authorized to grant waivers to states that can show through detailed plans that their needs are different.

William Littlejohn, president of the Council for Exceptional Children, took the position that the set-aside for handicapped students, "as imperfect as it is," does help to assure access to vocational programs.

Problems with the set-asides, suggested Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, should not be a "reason to jettison the program" but an impetus to correct and improve it.

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