Proposed Split of Federal Voc.-Ed. Funds Stirs Panel Debate
Washington--Despite vigorous lobbying by higher-education groups, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week approved a bill directing the bulk of federal vocational-education funds to secondary schools.
The reauthorization bill approved by the committee contained a slight modification in the measure as reported last month by the education subcommittee, which mandated that states channel 70 percent of federal vocational-education funds to secondary schools and 30 percent to postsecondary institutions.
In a compromise worked out before the mark-up session with Senator Claiborne Pell, chairman of the subcommittee, the bill was amended to allow more flexibility by setting a range of from 65 to 75 percent of funds for secondary schools and from 25 to 35 percent for postsecondary schools.
But Senator David Durenberger, Republican of Minnesota, failed to convince committee members to eliminate the split or direct a greater share of funding to postsecondary schools.
States' use of federal vocational-education funds varies widely, the National Assessment of Vocational Education has found, with some4states devoting a majority of funds to secondary schools and others to postsecondary institutions.
In Minnesota, Mr. Durenberger noted, 91 percent of federal vocational-education funds are spent at the postsecondary level. The state provides funding for secondary programs, he added.
"At this point in time, when we are trying to encourage innovation, it is wrong to include a new mandate," he said.
But Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, defended the provision. "I'm a strong believer in flexibility, but I do believe we have to reach secondary students or they will never make it to the postsecondary level," she argued. "That is the area of greatest need."
And Mr. Pell noted that the bill includes a three-year phase-in of the plan to allow states time to readjust their funding systems.
Mr. Durenberger offered three amendments on the issue, each of which was soundly defeated.
Minimum Grant Lowered
Another compromise reached before the session lowered a $75,000 minimum for grants to $25,000. The change was made in response to concerns expressed by several senators, who warned that the higher level would hurt rural schools.
The subcommittee bill had set the $75,000 baseline, while allowing districts to form consortia if their individual formula-based grants fell below that level. (See Education Week, Nov. 1, 1989.)
The floor was adopted because recent studies have shown that many grants were returned by school districts either because the amounts were too small to be useful or because the districts could not meet matching requirements.
But Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, said that nearly 80 percent of the districts in his state would not have qualified for funds under the $75,000 threshold.
The compromise set the minimum grant at $25,000 and eliminated the matching requirement.
Bill sponsors said they hoped to quickly move the bill to the full Senate. Two amendments are likely to be offered on the floor.
One, sponsored by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, would reauthorize the National Council on Vocational Education, which is slated for elimination in the committee's bill.
The other, to be offered by Senator Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi, would establish a separate authorization for supplemental grants to areas of special need, such as those with high unemployment.
Overall, the bill seeks to distribute a greater portion of funds directly to the local level by using the funding formula developed for the Chapter 1 program. That formula is based on the number of children living in poverty in each school district.
The legislation also mandates that states develop performance standards for federally funded vocational-education programs, and gives states greater monitoring powers.
In addition, the measure would shift responsibility for the National Center for Research on Vocational Education from the Education Department's office of adult and vocational education to the office of educational research and improvement.
It would also split the center into three or more smaller entities, one of which would conduct research on serving Native Americans. The shift would not affect existing grants.
The bill, S 1109, authorizes $1.5 billion for the first year. The House-passed bill calls for $1.4 billion.
Like the Senate bill, the House measure seeks to drive funds to the local level, but employs a different formula. It also would require more coordination with other programs.
A House-Senate conference on the bill is not expected until next year.