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Voc.-Ed. Bill To Create Four Block Grants Clears House Panel

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Washington

The House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee moved last week to give states and governors more authority over federal vocational-education and job-training dollars. It approved on a bipartisan vote a workforce-development bill that would replace 100 separate programs with four block grants.

"During my tenure in the House, I can't remember a more sweeping reform effort undertaken by this or any other committee," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the panel's chairman.

The bill, HR 1617, was approved by a vote of 29 to 5, with the support of all the Republicans present and 10 Democrats.

"The word 'bipartisan' has been used probably more often in the committee in the last five minutes than in the Congress in the last 125 days," quipped Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.

The Republican-sponsored measure would replace more than 100 vocational-education, literacy, and job-training programs with four block grants to states and kill an additional 50 programs outright. Each grant would address a broad area: youth workforce preparation, training for adult workers, adult education and literacy, and vocational-rehabilitation programs. (See Education Week, 5/24/95.)

The "consolidated and reformed education, employment, and rehabilitation systems," or careers, bill was approved by the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, Training, and Lifelong Learning the previous week. Committee aides expect the measure to go to the House floor by late June.

Reservations Voiced

"We hear over and over that 'the system is broken' and does not serve the needs of students, adults, or employers," said Rep. William Clay, D-Mo., the committee's ranking Democrat. "The time has come to create a real integrated system."

But Mr. Clay also expressed reservations about the measure, particularly that it might kill off the programs created and financed under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994.

Mr. Clay also criticized its authorized spending levels as inadequate and questioned whether guidelines the subcommittee added for allocating money within states would be enough to keep the money from being misused.

The measure would authorize $2.3 billion annually for youth programs, $2.26 billion for job training for adults, and $280 million for adult education and literacy. An amendment proposed by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., would have increased those levels to $2.9 billion, $3.2 billion, and $597 million, respectively. The amendment was rejected, 20 to 12.

Nearly 25 amendments were offered, including several Democrat-sponsored efforts to target funding to specific programs or populations, such as sex-equity programs or high school dropouts. But these efforts were repeatedly rebuffed on party-line votes.

Clinton Idea Echoed

But the panel approved an amendment, introduced by Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., that directs states to maximize the use of vouchers in the provision of job-training services to adults. The amendment, approved on a voice vote despite the skepticism of some Republicans, represented a victory for Democrats, because the idea strongly resembles a proposal advanced by President Clinton.

The President proposed giving adult workers "skill grants" -- vouchers of up to $2,620 to be used for job training--when he unveiled his "Middle Class Bill of Rights" last December. (See Education Week, 1/18/95.)

Douglas D. Ross, the Labor Department's assistant secretary for employment and training, called the bill "a significant bipartisan first step in terms of building the workforce system this country needs."

But he said the Clinton Administration still wants to see the bill "define the school-to-work framework more clearly." For example, he said, the Administration would like to see language in the bill emphasizing the need to link learning in classrooms to learning on the job.

The Administration is also pressing to retain some form of "venture capital" that encourages states to set up school-to-work systems, the purpose of the current federal school-to-work program. While that program received $250 million in the current fiscal year, Mr. Ross said, the only money that would be available for this purpose under the House bill would be $25 million that it would authorize as a discretionary fund.

Several higher-education provisions included in an earlier draft of HR 1617 were deleted, in part to insure bipartisan passage of the measure, Mr. Goodling said. The committee will address the higher-education issues at a separate markup of legislation in early June.

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