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Lawmakers See Need To Untangle Voc.-Ed. Web

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In contrast with partisan clashes elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Democratic and Republican lawmakers agreed last week on the need to streamline the tangled web of federal vocational-education and job-training programs.

That matter was the first order of business in the new Congress for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, which devoted three days of hearings to it last week. The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee also spent a day debating the issue.

And President Clinton voiced support for consolidation of programs as he visited a Galesburg, Ill., community college last week to promote his proposed "Middle Class Bill of Rights."

The federal government spent about $20 billion last year on 163 employment and training programs administered by 15 different agencies, according to a General Accounting Office report released on the first day of the hearings. Nineteen percent of the programs served young people, the largest of the 11 population groups served.

A Fragmented System

The fragmented system is crippled by an absence of clear entry points for users, weak links with employers, and few incentives for programs to place participants in jobs, the report argues. Moreover, 40 percent of the programs could not determine how many people they served each year, and fewer than half collected data on whether or not participants found jobs.

Pointing to a chart depicting the current training system, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., compared it to a Rube Goldberg contraption. "We need radical, major surgery of the federal job-training apparatus," he said, "so we can start doing something that works and get people to work."

Testimony from program participants drove the system's failings home at the Senate hearings.

For example, during the 16 years she was on welfare, said Ernestine Dunn, a single mother who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant, she participated in eight different training programs before landing a stable job. Most of the programs focused on r‚sum‚ writing and interviewing techniques, and never taught her any trade-specific skills.

No to the Status Quo

Such testimony "makes it clear that few people...are satisfied or happy with the present system," said the committee's new chairwoman, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan. "Maintaining the status quo in federal job training would be a disservice to workers who need real help, to employers who need good workers, and to taxpayers who want assurance that these funds are well spent."

A wide range of experts, including leaders of state-level job-training programs, private employers, and academics, offered suggestions on what an improved system might look like.

Marion Pines, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at John Hopkins University, urged Congress to develop a central information system, results-oriented performance standards, standardized fiscal and administrative procedures, and a well-designed research agenda.

Testifying before the Senate panel, Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich said he saw a bipartisan consensus emerging on four points: consolidating programs, creating better accountability measures to assess their effectiveness, introducing "one-stop career centers" to ease entry into the system, and giving states and localities greater flexibility over how they use federal job-training dollars.

Indeed, Senator Kassebaum's decision to put the issue at the top of the committee's agenda won her accolades from her predecessor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

But Senator Kennedy warned that Republican proposals to replace the current system with block grants might only serve to replace one failed bureaucracy with another. He also disputed the accuracy of the G.A.O. figures, noting that its list of 163 programs included several programs "that have nothing to do with job training," such as Even Start, a family-literacy program.

Some advocates of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act are also concerned that the new Republican-controlled Congress might include it in the consolidation, as the program is closely identified with the Clinton Administration.

Democratic Proposal

For their part, Democratic leaders last week introduced the proposed "working American opportunities act," a measure designed to enact President Clinton's "bill of rights."

Mr. Clinton has proposed collapsing 50 current training programs and using the money from them to award "skill grants" to unemployed workers and low-income adults and youths. Participants would receive vouchers of up to $2,620. They could combine the grants with student loans, but would not also be eligible for Pell Grants.

If such new aid is approved, said David Longanecker, the Education Department's assistant secretary for postsecondary education, it is "conceivable" that the Administration might support halting the use of Pell Grants for postsecondary programs that do not lead to a college degree.

Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., for whom the Pell Grant program was named, said in a statement that he would be "deeply troubled by any proposal that would divide the Pell Grant program, alter its design, change its thrust, or endanger its funding base."

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