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Educators Scurry To Prepare for Voc.-Ed. Reforms

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Washington--State and local educators are hailing a major overhaul of federal vocational-education programs approved by the Congress last week--and warning that they may be short of both the time and the money needed to put the reforms into place.

On a voice vote, the House last week gave final approval to a bill, HR 7, reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act for five years. President Bush is expected to sign the measure.

But rather than pausing to cheer the completion of the bill's lengthy journey through the Congress, leading vocational educators scurried to prepare for its implementation--a process that they say could squeeze six months of state planning into six weeks.

"It's not going to be a fun time," said Darrell Parks, Ohio's director of vocational and career education.

HR 7's implementation date of July 1, 1991, means that states' three-year vocational-education plans, which are due May 1, must reflect the impending changes in the law. To obtain prior state approval, Mr. Parks said, officials must first wait for regulations from the Education Department and hurriedly draft plans by February.

"We're talking about a major, major overhaul of the vocational-education enterprise," Mr. Parks said. "There are a lot of things we've taken as routine in the past that are no longer going to be in vogue."

Vocational-education officials also expressed concern about the effects of stagnant funding on the first year of reforms. The Education Department last week requested a $938-million appropriation from a Senate panel, the same amount provided this year. HR 7, by contrast, sets a $1.7-billion first-year authorization.

The bill would shift a significant portion of federal vocational-educa4tion resources from states to local school districts and eliminate funding set-asides designed to ensure access for the handicapped and disadvantaged. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

The legislation also requires states to devise performance measures for vocational programs, encourages "tech-prep" agreements between secondary and postsecondary schools, and underscores the need for linking academic and vocational curricula.

HR 7 should lead to a new emphasis for local vocational programs, said Representative Bill Goodling, a Pennsylvania Republican and one of the bill's chief sponsors. "We want to make sure we're training people for the jobs that are out there tomorrow," he said. "I know that's asking a lot, but that must be our focus."

Mr. Parks said that while the bill is winning favorable reviews on its merits, delays in getting the package to the White House have left state officials in a bind.

"We can make this piece of legislation work, and obviously we will, but in designing it we need time to make adjustments at the state level," he said. "It's going to be very difficult."

The tight time-frames also are being felt at the Education Department, where top vocational-education administrators have been meeting with representatives of leading advocacy groups to get a head start on drafting new regulations.

Betsy Brand, the department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said the implementation calendar also leaves federal administrators little time to contemplate the reforms' effects.

"We're very pleased with the law and think it moves the program in the right direction. It's a good challenge to the system," Ms. Brand said. "We are a little concerned about having a three-year plan put together in a couple of months with all of the new requirements."

The department already has scheduled four regional hearings to discuss the new regulations and will conduct an abbreviated negotiated-rulemaking session on key points in mid-December.

"Our concern is that we make sure states are developing high-quality plans," Ms. Brand said. "Somehow, we need to find a way to give states some flexibility in this short time- frame so that there's an opportunity to go back and review the system."

"Because there are so many new ideas and directions," she added, "I think it's going to take a lot of time on everybody's part to design new programs and get them implemented."

Local vocational-education program supervisors also voiced confidence about the long-term effects of the changes in the legislation.

For example, the bill calls for more concentrated federal funding, by setting a $15,000 minimum grant for secondary schools and a $50,000 floor for postsecondary schools. That should give local programs more ammunition to fight widespreadel10lskills deficiencies, according to Gene Callahan, superintendent of the Tulsa County, Okla., vocational-technical school district and president-elect of the American Vocational Association.

"We have hopes that it is going to make a difference, and, until we see the details of the regulations, we're going to be optimistic," Mr. Callahan said. He added that the bill also will help local programs upgrade their facilities and equipment, which he said have become the chief problem in the Tulsa County system.

"It puts more emphasis on what the local area seems to think is important," added Mr. Goodling. "We hope that will make a difference."

While the crunch in planning time will not effect local program officials as severely as state administrators, both groups say dim prospects for realizing the bill's increased funding levels may cause the reforms to lose momentum.

Education Department officials said delays in passing the bill and overall uncertainties about the 1991 budget made asking for an increase unrealistic. Ms. Brand said the department was focusing its efforts for a vocational-education increase on talks already under way within the Administration for the 1992 budget request.

In its first year, the bill would increase the funding ceiling for basic state grants from $850.8 million to $1.36 billion. The measure also bars funding of several programs, such as guidance and business-partnership programs, unless the appropriation for basic grants exceeds $1 billion.

"If we have the same amount of dollars we had before, we lose right off because of inflation," Mr. Callahan said. "I can appreciate the situation the department is in, but certainly the dollars have got to increase if we're going to provide improved services."

But Ms. Brand argued that the reforms can be carried out at current funding levels. "For the success of the law, I don't think large increases in funding are necessary," she said.

"If we're serious about integrating academic and vocational education, there will be more of an emphasis with our research dollars," Ms. Brand continued. "But many of the new programs the bill authorizes can be carried out under state grants right now. I don't think you need a vast infusion of new funding to make the system change."

Mr. Parks warned, however, that many state and local administrators would see level funding as a sign that federal officials were not serious about expanding the vocational-education system.

"In a sense, [level funding] neu4tralizes the potential of the legislation, if it is as important as the original House and Senate votes would have indicated," Mr. Parks said.

The House passed its version of HR 7 by a 402-to-3 vote, while the Senate unanimously approved its companion bill, S 1109.

Without increased funding, "much of the capacity for leadership activities and technical assistance will have to be severely curtailed," Mr. Parks said. "To get that back will be very difficult."

Mr. Goodling said he had not yet given up on an appropriations increase, adding that no one is certain how education programs will fare until White House and Congressional negotiators reach an overall budget accord.

"Level funding will be better than a cut, but part of the whole idea was increased funding," he said.

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