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State Vocational-Ed. Plans 'Fall Far Short'Of Law's Vision of Overhaul, Groups Warn

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By Lonnie Harp

A group of 32 national organizations has told federal officials that three-year state vocational-education plans submitted recently "fall far short" of the overhaul envisioned last year by the Congress.

"We believe that these problems are quite serious and threaten the kinds of dramatic change and improvement which Congress has called for," the advocacy groups asserted in a letter to the Education Department's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

The groups, led by the Center for Law and Education, complain that many states conducted inadequate public hearings, ran faulty assessments of current programs, and failed to say how they would serve handicapped and needy students.

"The new quality, equity, and participatory-planning emphases in the revised act are in danger of being swamped by an effort to continue business as usual, and by an apparent indifference to those substantive provisions which do not translate di4rectly into what a recipient's dollar allocation will be," the letter states.

Groups that joined in the letter include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Council for Exceptional Children, Wider Opportunities for Women Inc., and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The Congress last year made major changes in federal vocational-education programs when it reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act for five years.

The measure extending the program redirected federal funds from state to local programs. Further, it abolished the program's previous distinction between program-improvement funds and money earmarked for "special populations."

Instead, the act urged state and local administrators to use Perkins funds for program improvement while assuring continued services to special populations.

While federal regulations for the program have not yet been published, state directors were required to submit their reform plans for the new act's first three years earlier this month. The Education Department must review and approve each plan.

A spokesman for Assistant Secretary Betsy Brand said last week that she had received the nine-page letter and was studying it. In the meantime, the spokesman said, department officials have "no response" to the complaints.

Shortcomings Cited

The group's specific examples of inadequate state efforts include:

Several examples of poor attendance at required hearings. "In one Southern state, inadequate notice of the public hearing resulted in only four people aside from vocational-education personnel attending," the groups claimed. "Staff couldn't answer half of the questions asked.''

Some states sent questionnaires to local school officials rather than conduct rigid analyses of programs' strengths and weaknesses. The groups said, for example, that the assessment in an unspecified central Midwestern state "asked those completing it [to] 'give your best estimate' instead of using 'measurable objective criteria."'

In several states, state officials who oversee services for special-needs students reported being left out of the vocational-education planning. In one Midwestern state a special-needs coordinator was "formally invited" to planning sessions but never notified of meetings. The complaint added that the involvement of state sex-equity administrators also has been lacking.

Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Center for Law and Education, said that while the group had not received a reply from department officials as of last week, it was more interested in the federal officials' aggressive review of the state plans.

While the plans were developed without draft regulations, Mr. Weckstein said time constraints, resistance to change, and a lack of understanding of the federal reforms led to most of the problems.

"I don't know how much the regulations would really have helped with the state plans, but that's not to say that additional guidance from the department would not have been helpful," he said, adding that if officials accept the criticisms, the department will send many states back to the drawing board.

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