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Voc.-Ed. Law Expected To Get Close Scrutiny

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With a new Republican leadership that has adopted a rallying cry of tax cuts and program consolidation, Congress is expected to take a critical look at federal vocational-education programs when the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act expires next year.

The 104th Congress may even choose not to reauthorize the Perkins Act as a discrete piece of legislation, and instead merge vocational education into a broader workforce-development bill.

Lawmakers could also choose to postpone the reauthorization process and extend the current law for a year in an effort to tackle such front-burner issues as welfare reform.

"The primary issue is, 'Should there be a separate federal vocational-education program, and, if so, what is its purpose?,'" said John F. Jennings, the chief education counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee.

Recent comments by Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who is expected to become the new chairman of the House education panel in January, may provide an indication of the direction the new Republican majority will take.

"I'd suggest that the 'inside the Beltway' term 'reauthorization' be stricken from the dictionary," Mr. Goodling said last month. "We shouldn't assume programs are going to continue year after year, but intensely examine them to make sure they are still needed and achieving their purpose."

Supporters of consolidation point to a series of G.A.O. studies published between January and July of this year that found more than 150 separate federal job-training programs. Reducing the number of programs and giving states more flexibility would eliminate redundancy and fragmentation, proponents contend.

Last spring, Mr. Goodling and other G.O.P. committee members introduced a bill that would merge some 86 employment and training programs into seven block grants. Included among the programs were the Perkins Act and the Job Training Partnership Act, which aids economically disadvantaged individuals.

The measure would give states greater control over federal funds and help them create comprehensive workforce-development systems. The bill's sponsors contend that the changes could save $7 billion over five years.

"Our basic thrust is that we're trying to look at the whole workforce-training system and see how it all fits together," an aide to Mr. Goodling said.

Coordination a Priority

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., who is expected to become the chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, has also proposed a consolidation bill, as has Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the outgoing chairman. Senator Kassebaum's bill would initially grant broad waivers to states giving them more control of federal funds and establish a commission to study how to replace current programs with a comprehensive system driven by private-sector demand.

At its annual meeting in November, the Council of Chief State School Officers approved recommendations that support retaining Perkins as a separate piece of legislation but stress the importance of linking it with the national goals and other programs.

A Sept. 20 Federal Register notice seeking comment on reauthorization of the Perkins Act emphasized the need to align the law with the national goals and other programs, suggesting that the Clinton Administration also views coordination as a priority.

But Augusta Souza Kappner, the assistant secretary of vocational and adult education, said that while she does not necessarily object to consolidating programs, consolidation is only an effective strategy if the end result is to improve the quality of programs for the people they serve.

"Whenever one raises the issue of consolidation," she said, "I always ask, 'For what purpose?'"

She also disputed the G.A.O. tabulations often cited by advocates of consolidation, asserting that the G.A.O. inflated program tallies by counting different titles within one piece of legislation separately and including programs that are no longer funded.

However, Ms. Kappner acknowledged that there are instances of duplication or overlap and that states sometimes face barriers to using federal funds effectively.

Leveraging Reforms

Although the Perkins Act, which is funded at $1.17 billion in the current fiscal year, provides only about 10 percent of the amount states spend on vocational education, Ms. Kappner argued that it represents a critical link in a set of programs that contribute $14 billion and together can leverage reforms.

Others agreed with her assessment. If vocational education is consolidated with other job-training programs, and the funding and programs are moved out of schools, Mr. Jennings cautioned, "the danger is that schools will not care about job preparation."

The National Assessment of Vocational Education, a three-year federal study conducted by the office of educational research and improvement, also linked recommendations for greater coordination between programs with a call for encouraging reforms. (See Education Week, 01/19/94.)

The researchers concluded that reforms recommended in the last reauthorization of the Perkins Act have been implemented on a limited basis and resulted in initiatives of "widely varying quality." Among other initiatives, they cited programs that integrate academic and vocational curricula and tech-prep programs, which link the last two years of high school vocational-education with two years of postsecondary training.

By directing funds to local sites, the report said, the act overlooked the role of state governments in supporting reform.

With consolidation becoming a buzzword on Capitol Hill, vocational-education advocates fear that Perkins programs--which they describe as a "first chance" system preparing students for the workforce--will be lumped together with "second chance" programs that retrain adults.

"My biggest concern is that they don't divorce vocational education from the rest of education reform by separating us out into a Labor [Department] program," said Bret Lovejoy, the acting executive director of the American Vocational Association.

"I think there's a real danger here that investment in education will be sacrificed to a politically popular tax cut," he said.

Others expressed concern that successful but nascent vocational-education programs funded under the last Perkins reauthorization, such as small programs for rural students, might be jeopardized.

"If they blend all of those programs into one big act, I just can't imagine Congress funding them to the level that would be necessary to get what we need to have happen," said Carolyn Maddy Bernstein, the director of the office of special populations at the National Center for Research in Vocational Education at the University of Illinois at Champaign.

'Special Needs'

The question of insuring access to vocational-education programs for special-needs students, such as students who are economically disadvantaged or limited English proficient, is also likely to remain a hot topic. One of the key findings of the NAVE report was that disadvantaged students, especially special-education students, were overrepresented in high school vocational-education programs.

When Congress last reauthorized the Perkins Act in 1990,it eliminated language setting aside separate monies for special-needs students, and instead targeted funds to districts with higher percentages of such students and required program evaluations to insure that their needs are met.

A pending lawsuit argues that regulations issued by the Bush Administration undermine that intent by requiring programs to provide supplementary services to special-needs students only "to the extent possible" with federal funds. The Education Department had planned to issue new rules addressing that concern. But Republicans objected, and Congress approved an amendment this fall barring any such regulations until after the Perkins Act is reauthorized.

While the Education Department does not yet have a specific timetable for introducing legislation, it is acting on the assumption that the law will be reauthorized next year, Ms. Kappner said. "Things are very fluid right now," she added.

Mr. Jennings said the legislative agenda cannot be determined until the new leadership sets its priorities and the jurisdictions of committees.

"It's hard to say this or that is going to happen until you know what the other demands are going to be on the committee," he said.

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