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Charging Inequities, Groups Sue To Block Voc.-Ed. Rules

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WASHINGTON--New rules regulating the use of federal vocational-education funds threaten to "deny equitable participation in quality programs'' to millions of students, contends a lawsuit filed by a group of organizations representing vocational-education students and service providers.

The lawsuit argues that the regulations to implement the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act of 1990 fail to reflect the language and intent of the law and, therefore, should be overturned.

The suit was filed on Dec. 30 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

The Education Department issued the regulations on Aug. 14. They became effective in September. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

The Perkins Act provides states with more than $1 billion to help finance vocational programs. Previous laws had earmarked portions of that money, known as "set asides,'' for specific uses at the local level, including the provision of supplementary services to enable disabled and disadvantaged students to take advantage of vocational education.

In 1990, Congress replaced most set asides with greater financial flexibility at the local level, as long as state and local governments met broad equity and quality mandates.

These mandates require that any recipients of federal funds provide low-income, low-achieving, limited-English-speaking, and disabled students with equal access to the full range of vocational programs and supply them with the supplementary services needed to participate.

But the lawsuit, National Puerto Rican Coalition v. Alexander, charges that the regulations would effectively limit the full participation of such students in vocational education, by restricting the participation and service requirements only to those projects and activities directly funded with Perkins money, and not to a district's entire vocational-education program. Federal funds account for less than 10 percent of the nation's vocational-education spending.

Required evaluations of a district's vocational-education programs are also limited only to those projects or activities receiving federal funds, according to the regulations.

In addition, the rules confine the responsibility districts have to provide supplementary services for special populations of students "only to the extent possible with federal funds.''

"The Secretary's regulations threaten to destroy the act's promise for millions of students who need extra services to succeed in vocational-education programs, or who are in programs in dire need of evaluation and improvement,'' charged Paul Weckstein, a co-counsel for the plaintiffs and the co-director of the Center for Law and Education. The center is among the organizations that brought the suit.

Support From Congress

A December 1991 letter to Mr. Alexander from the chairmen of the House and Senate education committees and four other committee and subcommittee chairmen supports the plaintiffs' position.

In a press statement, Rep. George Miller, D.-Calif., said, "The regulations fail to comply with the clear language and spirit of the law.''

The relationship between Congress and the department regarding the regulations has been a stormy one. The department did not release the regulations until two years after the act was passed, and then, only after pressure from Congress.

Mr. Weckstein suggested that, until the lawsuit is settled, the only "safe course'' for education agencies is to rely on the actual words of the act and provide supplementary services to special populations, as required.

Department officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Other plaintiffs are the National Puerto Rican Coalition, the Learning Disabilities Association, the National Coalition of Title 1/Chapter 1 Parents, the National Association for Bilingual Education, the Vocational Evaluation and Work Adjustment Association, North Carolina òåáì Enterprises, the Correctional Education Association, and the National Association of Vocational Assessment in Education.

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