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Conferees Hammer Out Agreement on School-to-Work Bill

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Washington

Members of the House and Senate ironed out the differences between their versions of the proposed "school-to-work opportunities act'' in a conference-committee meeting last week, setting the stage for final passage of the bill.

The bill would authorize $300 million in seed money to states and localities in the fiscal year that begins Oct.1 to help build systems that would prepare young people for high-skill, high-wage jobs.

One of the biggest sticking points had been whether to require school-to-work programs funded under the act to include paid work experiences. The House bill had required paid work experience; the Senate bill had not.

Conferees agreed to give priority to grant applications for school-to-work systems that would require paid work-based learning.

Lawmakers also agreed to give funding priority to grant applications that show the "highest levels of concurrence'' among all of the state officials involved in drafting the school-to-work plans.

The governance issue had been a thorny one. The Council of Chief State School Officers, in particular, had expressed concerns that state education agencies might not be required to sign off on aspects of a school-to-work system that directly affected their programs. In contrast, governors had expressed concern that the law not include provisions that would allow plans to be held hostage by particular state agencies.

Under the compromise, an applicant must describe the manner in which all of the important officials collaborated to develop the school-to-work plan and will cooperate to implement it.

If there is disagreement among any of the state officials or agencies affected by the proposal, the governor can still submit the plan to the federal government for funding. But the dissenting officials or agencies would be entitled to submit comments along with the proposal expressing their concerns.

"Because of our priority language and our collaboration language, those grant applications probably would not receive funding,'' a House aide said.

Mandates or Priorities

Grant applications must also describe how the state has obtained and will continue to obtain the active involvement of employers and other interested parties.

If a state plans to seek waivers to federal laws or regulations to implement its school-to-work system, waiver requests would also have to be included as part of its grant application or as an amendment to its plan. And any of the state agencies whose programs would be affected by such a waiver would have to sign off on the request.

A last-minute snag came up when Sen. Howard R. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, expressed concern about language intended to clarify that while the program is designed to a broad array of students, it is not an entitlement, under which all eligible applicants are legally guaranteed services.

Mr. Metzenbaum said he was concerned that the language could be interpreted to restrict individuals' right to bring discrimination suits under existing civil-rights laws. Legislators asked their aides to come up with language that would make it clear that the bill does not provide any new legal rights or impinge on existing rights.

Several lawmakers remarked on the largely harmonious, bipartisan nature of their deliberations on the legislation.

"I think this is a very important piece in our whole job-training network'' that would contribute to a "seamless process'' for training Americans, said Rep. Dale E. Kildee, D-Mich.

Although the bill must still be ratified by both chambers, the Education and Labor departments have launched it this year under existing statutory authority. Education Department officials said 22 states applied for implementation grants by the April 1 deadline. Congress appropriated $100 million for the grants.

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