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School-to-Work Proposal Gets Favorable Reception On Capitol Hill

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WASHINGTON--The Clinton Administration's proposed "school-to-work opportunities act'' received a warm reception on Capitol Hill last week, as committees in both the House and the Senate held their first hearings on the bill.

More hearings are planned this month, and the committees may take up the bill by the end of the month.

"I'm happy to see this legislation,'' said Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., a co-sponsor of the bill and the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

"That doesn't mean that I like every punctuation mark,'' he said. "Nevertheless, it's a start in the right direction.''

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Productivity, which also held a hearing on the bill, said: "We have a panoply of organizations endorsing it--labor, management, education groups--so I think we can move forward very quickly.''

The legislation would provide seed money to states and communities for programs designed to help ease the transition from school to work, especially for the noncollege-bound.

The Administration has proposed spending $270 million to launch the program in fiscal 1994, which began Oct. 1, and plans to request $300 million for fiscal 1995. But it appears that Congress will provide far less than requested, at least this year. The Senate has approved a bill that would provide $100 million for fiscal 1994, while a companion House measure includes only $67.5 million. (See related story, page 21.)

Joint Testimony

During testimony by the secretaries of Labor and Education, whose agencies would jointly administer the program, lawmakers praised their unusual collaboration. (See story, page 22.)

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said the proposal would "help millions of young people to jump-start their careers,'' while many now "just drift through schools.''

Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich added: "We have to disenthrall ourselves from the premise that in order to have a good job, you have to have a four-year college degree in this country. That can't be right.''

He described the proposed grants as venture capital that would spur states to increase their activities in this area, and "not a big new federal program.''

Nonetheless, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said: "A lot of things are worthy ... but since we have such a big debt, how are we going to pay for it?''

House members also voiced concern about whether the bill relies too much on existing systems and whether it would encourage school-to-work programs to start early enough in a student's school career. The bill focuses on grades 11 and beyond.

"I want to make sure that there's enough flexibility there that we can deal with middle school,'' Mr. Goodling said.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., suggested that small businesses may "decide it's too expensive to mess with'' school-to-work programs if they have to provide students with workers' compensation, health insurance, and other fringe benefits.

Mr. Reich said that while the legislation does not specify how to treat such benefits, communities could create such attractive internships that the issue of pay and benefits proves "frankly irrelevant'' to students. He also noted that many existing internships are already exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and minimum-wage requirements.

Goals 2000

But the biggest concern expressed by House committee members had less to do with the school-to-work bill itself than with the development of national skills standards under President Clinton's separate school-reform bill, the "goals 2000: educate America act.''

Such standards would help shape school-to-work programs and provide young people who completed them with portable certificates that would be widely recognized by employers.

Republicans and Democrats have engaged in constant wrangling over the composition of a proposed national skills-standards board and how such standards would be developed.

"We're going to have this bill [the school-to-work act] passed and signed into law,'' said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., "and we'll still be debating 'goals 2000.'''

He asked whether the Administration would support attaching provisions related to the skills-standards board to the school-to-work bill.

But Mr. Riley said it was a "great statement'' to include skills standards as part of the school-reform bill--which would also foster high academic standards for all students--because skills standards are an educational, as well as a job-training, issue.

The "goals 2000'' bill has been approved by committees in both the House and the Senate, and could come to the House floor this week.

One stumbling block is the need to insure that national skills standards do not undermine or conflict with existing standards for registered apprenticeship programs.

Mr. Gunderson is worried that the way the legislation is now worded, as many as 258 occupations could be exempted from the development of national skills standards.

Secretary Reich said the Administration is working with Congress to draft an amendment that would "narrowly define'' the criteria and cause only a "small number'' of occupations to be exempted.

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