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Senate Committee Approves Skills-Standards Board

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WASHINGTON--The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee last week approved the Clinton Administration's proposal to create a national board to stimulate the development of occupational-skills standards and certificates.

But support for the proposal, as written, was split sharply along party lines. Congressional aides predicted that additional amendments would be offered on the Senate floor when the measure is considered later this month.

Meanwhile, negotiations on the bill were continuing in the House, where both Democrats and Republicans on the Education and Labor Committee had expressed reservations about some of its provisions. (See Education Week, May 26, 1993.)

The House panel is scheduled to mark up the Administration's "goals 2000: educate America act,'' which includes the skills-standards proposal, on June 17.

Although the idea of a national skills-standards board has attracted some of the most heated debate, lawmakers also remain deeply divided over some of the legislation's other provisions, such as how extensive federal mandates should be when it comes to developing national education standards and assessments.

Composition at Issue

The Senate panel had approved the rest of the goals 2000 bill last month. But it deferred marking up the bill's skills-standards portion.

However, by last week, lawmakers had failed to find a compromise that satisfied both parties.

During the mark-up session, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the ranking Republican on the committee, offered a substitute on behalf of her G.O.P. colleagues that she said would eliminate the "needlessly prescriptive provisions'' in the bill.

But the substitute failed on a 10-to-7 vote, strictly along party lines.

The largest division between Republicans and Democrats centers on the composition of the board itself and, in particular, whether it should have an industry-led majority.

Under the Administration's proposal, the board would comprise 28 members, including the secretaries of Labor, Education, and Commerce; the chairman of the proposed National Education Standards and Improvement Council; eight representatives from business and industry; eight from organized labor; and eight from educational institutions, community-based organizations, state and local governments, and civil-rights groups.

In contrast, Ms. Kassebaum's amendment would have created a 24-member board, with an industry-dominated majority, including six members from large businesses or industry and six from small businesses.

The three federal officials and the chairman of the standards and improvement council would have been limited to a nonvoting status. And workers would have been guaranteed only one seat on the board.

Ms. Kassebaum cautioned that "without greater business and industry representation on the board this legislation could become an exercise in futility.''

Her position is supported by both the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Alliance of Business.

But Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, countered, "Why should the employees be denied a fair chance to participate in the skills-development process?''

The two parties also remain split over whether members of the board should be appointed by Congress, or by the President as well.

'Moving Forward'?

Under the bill, as approved by the committee, the board would "serve as a catalyst'' in stimulating the development and adoption of a voluntary national system of skills standards, assessments, and certificates.

It would do so by identifying clusters of major occupations in which standards are to be set, after "extensive public consultation.'' It would then provide grants to voluntary partnerships of business, labor, and education groups to actually develop the standards and certificates. And it would endorse such systems for the occupational clusters that it had identified, if the systems met the board's criteria.

Many of the language changes adopted by the committee were meant to clarify the process for developing skills standards and to specify that the board would not actually draft such standards itself.

But Republicans continued to complain that the legislation was "too intrusive.'' Several of Ms. Kassebaum's proposed changes were designed to rein in the board's authority and to place it in more of an advisory role.

The board, she maintained, should serve more as a "clearinghouse'' for information, "rather than dictate requirements from the top down.''

During the mark-up, Ms. Kassebaum said that she has "been skeptical about the notion of establishing a national board.'' But, she conceded, "nevertheless, I believe we are moving forward with this.''

Senator Kassebaum expressed hope that the two parties could work out a compromise before the bill reaches the floor.

Kennedy Agrees

That view was seconded by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the committee, who said it was his "sincere desire'' that the issue be approached in a "bipartisan way.'' Mr. Kennedy's statement opened up the possibility that the committee will introduce an amendment on the floor, if it can reach a compromise.

Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., warned that if a compromise could not be reached, "it could seriously effect the education bill in which [Mr. Kennedy] and others are interested.''

After rejecting Ms. Kassebaum's amendment, the committee approved the education-reform bill in its entirety, with the skill-standards section, on a voice vote.

The skills-standards portion of the bill now includes a number of changes, negotiated with civil-rights groups, to insure that it does not adversely affect existing protections against employment discrimination.

The legislation specifies that "nothing in this title shall be construed to modify or affect any federal or state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, or disability.''

In addition, any standards, assessments, or certificates endorsed by the board could not discriminate and would have to include methods for assessing their "validity and reliability ... for the intended purposes of the system.''

The legislation also prohibits employers involved in employment-discrimination suits from using the mere endorsement of such standards, assessments, or certificates by the board as a legal justification for their use in hiring decisions.

But the committee dropped language that critics charged would have encouraged test scores to be adjusted to insure equal passage and certification rates for all groups. Such practices, known as "norming,'' are barred by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

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