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New Vocational Plan Set for House Vote, With Oversight Curb

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Washington--The House Education and Labor Committee last week gave unanimous approval to legislation making major changes in the way the federal government distributes funds to vocational-education programs.

And in a signal on a longstanding point of friction with the executive branch, the lawmakers included a provision that would rein in the Office of Management and Budget's oversight role in vocational research and evaluation activities.

The new funding method would replace existing set-asides for special populations at the state level with a formula focusing funds on local school districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged and handicapped students. (See Education Week, April 19, 1989.)

The only challenge to that shift--an effort by Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, to reserve 5 percent of funds at the state level for programs serving handicapped students--failed to muster much support and never came to a vote.

Before voting to send the five-year reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act to the full House, however, the panel adopted a controversial amendment curbing the Office of Management and Budget's oversight of research and regulations under the law.

Democratic backers of the amendment argued that the budget agency has too often been able to influence research and reports and to delay the rulemaking process. But Republican opponents warned that the amendment could spur President Bush to veto the entire measure.

Sponsors of the bill expect floor action to begin as early as this week and to be completed before the Congress adjourns for its Memorial Day recess.

Restricting the O.M.B.

The omb amendment, offered by Representative Pat Williams, Democrat of Montana, provided that any report, research, evaluation plans, methodology, or survey required by the law would not be sub4ject to prior review or approval by the budget agency.

The amendment also would allow the o.m.b. to take no more that 10 days to review proposed regulations. In addition, changes proposed by the agency would have to be attributed to it when the regulations were printed.

Throughout the Reagan Administration, education advocates pointed to the o.m.b. as the chief force behind efforts to eliminate federal vocational-education programs.

More recently, transmittal to the Congress of the Education Department's proposal for the Perkins reauthorization was delayed due to negotiations with o.m.b., according to officials.

"The o.m.b. executes policy authority that I don't believe belongs to them," Mr. Williams argued. "There have been some abuses in o.m.b. related to this Act."

Mr. Williams also argued that the o.m.b. edits or changes research when "it doesn't send the right message" in the eyes of Administration officials.

But Representative William Goodling of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the committee, warned that such a restriction on o.m.b.'s authority could draw fire from Mr. Bush. "I think we are getting into an area we shouldn't get into," he said. "I would hate to see an awfully good bill get vetoed."

The amendment was adopted on an 18-to-13 vote that fell strictly along party lines. White House officials last week refused to comment on the bill.

If the amendment becomes a part of the final law, it will be first time such a measure will have succeeded, according Gary D. Bass, executive director of o.m.b. Watch.

Mr. Bass said that while measures to thwart o.m.b.'s powers have been introduced in the past, none have been as comprehensive as the Williams amendment.

Funding Formula Questioned

Mr. Owens based his criticism of the new funding formula on what he said was a lack of assurances that local districts would use their funds for sound programs for the disabled.

The bill, which would authorize funding of $1.4 billion in its first year, would direct 80 percent of state aid to local districts. The remaining 20 percent would be used at the state level for a variety of programs and oversight responsibilities.

The new method would distribute funds to each district according to the following formula: 70 percent on the number of Chapter 1 students; 20 percent on the number of handi8capped students; and 10 percent on overall enrollment.

Mr. Owens's amendment would have provided that 5 percent of state grants, which would have been administered separately from the district formula, be used for programs serving handicapped students.

Although Mr. Owens reportedly pushed hard for his amendment, including meeting privately with Augustus F. Hawkins, the California Democrat who chairs the committee, he failed to gain the necessary votes.

"Here is a case where we could have had a safety-valve to serve a constituency that often faces hostility," Mr. Owens said in withdrawing the amendment. "Just because we decide to do away with set-asides does not mean they will no longer face those hostilities."

George Miller, Democrat of California, supported Mr. Owens. "I can't think of anyone on the committee who honestly believes that there will be a one-to-one ratio between the count of the handicapped in the formula and actual spending on the handicapped," Mr. Miller said. "Let's not suggest we are all in agreement."

But Mr. Goodling said the set-aside for handicapped students in current law has not served those students.

"I'll be the first to admit that handicapped students are not well served under existing conditions," he said, urging that the new formula be given a chance to be tested.

During debate, Mr. Williams suggested that an amendment be drafted to require the Education Department to study the formula after two years to see how well schools are serving the handicapped. The idea was favorably received by committee members, and Mr. Williams said he would offer the amendment during floor debate.

In other action, the panel unanimously approved an amendment to disband the National Council on Vocational Education.

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