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Higher Vocational Goals Eyed By Administration

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Washington--The Bush Administration would like to see performance standards set for federally supported vocational-education programs, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos told members of the Congress last week.

The Education Department also wants to allow each state to determine the percentages of funds that will go to serve the disadvantaged, handicapped, and other special populations, Mr. Cavazos said.

And he told lawmakers the department will propose that states be required to link vocational-education plans with their other economic-development activities.

Mr. Cavazos appeared before the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee to outline the department's plans for reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act. The Secretary said the formal proposal would be sent to the Congress in time for the subcommittee's April 12 markup of the reauthorization bill.

Although several subcommittee members voiced reservations about the department's proposals, Secretary Cavazos was generally well received.

"This is probably the first positive discussion we've had on vocational education with the education secretary in years," said Representative4William D. Ford, Democrat of Michigan.

Secretary Cavazos said the department's proposal will include a provision requiring states to develop performance standards related to students' improvement in basic skills and success in the labor market, as well as to "any other areas the states determine are appropriate."

States would use the performance standards in deciding which programs to fund, he continued.

That proposal drew fire from Mr. Ford, who said it could discriminate against low-income areas that are most in need of federal aid.

"How will poor districts with little industry get help to improve vocational programs if you measure success by how many students get jobs?" Mr. Ford asked. "I submit to you that how many students get jobs is more dependent on an area's economy than on how well the schools are doing teaching skills."

The best vocational programs "leverage accountability on themselves'' by tracking students after graduation, countered Bonnie F. Guiton, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. "We think some kind of accountability should be required of all programs."

Mr. Cavazos said the department would propose retaining the overall requirement that 57 percent of basic-grant funds be desig8nated for special populations. But within that amount, he suggested, the existing federal breakdowns should be lifted.

Currently, 22 percent of the special-population funds are designated for the disadvantaged, 12 percent for adults, 10 percent for handicapped individuals, 8.5 percent to single parents and displaced homemakers, 3.5 percent to eliminate sex bias, and 1 percent for criminal offenders.

The department's proposal would allow each state, after a thorough assessment of its needs, to set percentages for each group.

But Glenn Poshard, Democrat of Illinois, questioned whether that method would ensure that states serve the special populations. "I'm concerned about the balance of allowing the states to set goals to meet individual needs, and the federal government giving teeth to the program so that states do meet their obligations," he said.

Mr. Poshard asked Mr. Cavazos how the department would monitor the process and what would happen if a state was found not to have served special groups adequately.

The department would use extensive "audit mechanisms," the Secretary responded. Any state that failed to serve the special populations would have to return the federal funds.

A new provision to be included in the department's proposal would push states to relate vocational education to the overall direction of their economies.

The provision would direct states to "put into place a process to ensure that any funds expended by local recipients for occupationally specific training will be used only to train students for occupations in which job openings are not only projected but are not likely to be filled without the establishment or continuation of public vocational-education programs," Mr. Cavazos explained.

The proposal also would shift from the state legislature to the governor the authority to review state plans. The goal of that change is "to ensure that vocational-education programs are coordinated with the overall economic, educational, and job-training strategy of the state," Mr. Cavazos continued.

The idea drew fire, however, from Representative Ford. "This proposal narrows the focus and has a secondary agenda," he said. "What would they teach in Appalachia or northern Michigan or other areas where there is chronic unemployment?"

Ms. Guiton responded that the department "does not want to suggest a narrow definition" of the proposal. But officials favor encouraging localities to "consider reality and balance that with educational direction," she said.

The department also will propose replacing the separate authorizations for state councils, research, demonstration, data systems, and bilingual vocational training with a broad section on "national programs,'' the officials said. And they called for consolidating the 26 activities authorized for program-improvement funds into three categories.

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