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State Officials Ask E.D. for Flexibility In Implementing New Voc.-Ed. Law

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ATLANTA--Administrators beginning to plan for major changes in federal vocational-education programs last week asked the Education Department for ample guidance, but little regulation, as federal officials draft rules under the new law.

The call for flexibility echoed sentiments expressed during an earlier meeting in Philadelphia, and was expected to be the dominant theme at another session last week in San Francisco and this week's final regional meeting in Kansas City, Mo., department officials said.

While the audience, composed mainly of state-level officials, wanted to know what will be expected of them under the new law, they also campaigned hard for the latitude to tailor its programs to individual state circumstances, said Betsy Brand, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education in the federal agency.

"I'm somewhat surprised that people are as ready for change as they are," Ms. Brand said. "We've tried to set a tone where we weren't telling people how to interpret the law. We tried to reach out more to the folks in the field."

In answering potential regulatory issues raised by the law, vocational educators meeting here agreed almost unanimously that federal officials should respond with advice and definition, but not rules.

"As far as state administration and leadership issues, that was the overwhelming impression," said J.W. Eades, associate director for vocational education in the North Carolina community-college department. "Most people are probably in the same boat--they are a little overwhelmed by the time frame for implementation, but I don't sense a lot of apprehension about the law. We know what we've got to deal with."

At all of the regional sessions where educators and administrators are tackling details of the reauthorized Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, deliberations are focusing on themes that will dramatically alter federal vocational programs.

"I hope they really are ready," Ms. Brand said of the educators and administrators, "because we may come out with some very major changes."

The law no longer earmarks the majority of funds for targeted groups such as the poor and handicapped. Other fundamental changes include a greater emphasis on improving local programs and linking secondary and postsecondary programs as well as vocational and academic curricula.

Federal officials who have asked how they should deal with such issues as how to apply new performance measures and ensure that grants are provided to the neediest schools have been told to leave those questions open for answers at the state and local levels.

In return, state and local officials have asked the department to use its regulatory process to dispense advice and provide assistance to states as they overhaul federally funded programs.

Among the issues cited here for clarification, educators asked how they can use funds left over from the current Perkins grant to pay for new programs, when equipment bought with Perkins funds can be used for local programs, and how they can administer incentive awards under the law's performance standards.

Educators said they also want to know more about how the law should balance services between the needy students it had previously targeted and their more affluent peers.

"The program can be much more effective if you are upgrading the whole program instead of focusing on upgrading four or five students in that program," said Marvin Flatt, assistant commissioner for vocational-technical education in Tennessee.

Mr. Flatt, who led a group considering the use and allocation of Perkins funds, said that the call for flexibilty reflects administrators' acceptance of the new law, a plan that at first shocked and upset many state officials because of its new approach. He said that the educators' desire to shape programs at the state and local level means they have bought into the new act's goals.

"We're saying we need to give the system flexibility to get students to the level of competency we want," he said, adding that while educators did not recommend a comprehensive regulatory program, their deliberations helped to underscore the issues that must be addressed between now and the law's July implementation.

"There were a lot of things that needed to be said. We're supposed to take this time to share those needs and look at the fine print," Mr. Flatt said. "We need to make sure we don't get boxed in."

Ms. Brand added that she has been pleased with the level of interest displayed at the regional sessions.

"Standing-room-only on regs writing is a real surprise to me," she said. "We've tried not to come with any expectations or take any positions on the issues we raised. That allows us to approach it in a more open fashion."

Ms. Brand said that while federal officials had expected the regional meetings to include a call for flexibility, they have been surprised by how prominent that theme has been.

State officials may consider pursuing an approach in which federal officials grant flexibility in state plans due this spring with the stipulation that there will be strict follow-up and accountability measures when the plans are renewed after three years, she said.

Department officials hope to publish draft regulations for the Perkins Act in January, Ms. Brand said. At least two regulatory issues will be framed during a negotiated rulemaking session scheduled in Washington during mid-December.

In other news at the Atlanta meeting, officials said that the fiscal 1991 appropriation for new tech-prep programs is sufficient to make it a state-grant program.

Tech-prep efforts would encourage agreements between high schools and colleges allowing an 11th-grade student to begin a sequence of courses that would lead to an associate's degree.

The tech-prep grants, totaling more than $63 million, will be distributed under the same formula as basic state grants, department officials said.

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