Some Fear Voc. Ed. Will Get Short Shrift Under Block Grants
With the Senate joining the House in advancing bills that would replace dozens of vocational-education and job-training programs with block grants, educators are trying to assess the likely impact of handing most authority over federal funding in those areas to states and their governors.
The measures awaiting floor consideration in both chambers represent an effort to streamline what observers agree is a tangled web of overlapping programs.
But while Democrats recognize that some consolidation is inevitable, they are concerned that vulnerable populations like special-needs students will not be served. And they argue that shifting the administration of programs to the states may simply replace one bureaucracy with 50 new ones.
Meanwhile, some vocational-education leaders fear that job training for adults will take precedence over education programs.
Bret Lovejoy, the executive director of the American Vocational Association, noted that the Senate bill, which calls for merging sections of the Education and Labor departments into a "nation~al workforce-development partner~ship," would tap "100 staff from Education and 1,600 from Labor."
"Given that scenario," he said, "you can't convince me it won't be a program run by Labor, and the focus will be on short-term training and not on in-school youth."
Daisy Stewart, an education professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, also suggested that how states distribute the federal money could become politicized, particularly in election years when a governor may want to shore up support in a particular region or with a particular constituency.
"What I'm seeing is schools and people who serve students in all areas are feeling threatened," said Mary Kisner, an assistant professor in the workforce-education and -development division of the college of education at Pennsylvania State University.
Ms. Kisner predicted that the proposed new approach would encourage schools to become more entrepreneurial and more collaborative. "It's going to force schools to track their successes," she added.
However, other observers fear that the legislation would undermine the national leadership they say is necessary to determine which programs are most effective and replicate them.
"There is no question that there was a need for restructuring of employment and training programs," said Robinson G. Hollister, an economics professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "The major problem to me is, if you go to a block-grant structure, where is the serious evaluation of the effectiveness of programs going to occur?"
S 143 Parties' Positions
The Senate bill, S 143, would repeal 91 programs and replace them with a single block grant, but retain separate titles for the Job Corps and for vocational-rehabilitation programs. The companion House bill, HR 1617, would eliminate more than 50 programs and replace 100 others with four block grants addressing vocational education, job training for adults, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation.
The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee passed S 143 on a 10-to-6 vote late last month, with only one Democrat, Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, joining Republicans in supporting it. In contrast, HR 1617 cleared the House Economic and Educational Opportunities committee in May with strong bipartisan support. (See Education Week, 5/31/95)
An aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the Senate panel's ranking minority member, said Democrats want to insure that schools, businesses, and community groups have a voice in running local programs. They want to give the federal secretaries of labor and education more flexibility in creating the office that is to administer the program nationally.
"Senator Kennedy wants to support [the bill], and he intends to eventually," the aide said.
Democrats would also like to increase the measure's authorized spending levels. The Senate bill's proposed $7 billion authorization represents a 15 percent decrease from current spending on the programs that would be replaced by the block grant.
At last month's mark-up of the bill, Senator Kennedy introduced an amendment that would have increased the authorization to $8.1 billion. Sen. James M. Jeffords, R-Vt., was the only Republican to support the move, which failed when the panel deadlocked 8 to 8.
Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the panel's chairwoman, noted that the proposed reduction was still less than the cuts called for in the House bill and "far better" than the 25 percent cut that was recommended by the House Budget Committee.
The Senate committee also re~jected two amendments that would have allocated more funding for job training, and several Democrat-sponsored amendments intended to target funds to specific populations, such as displaced homemakers.
But Republicans agreed to add language stipulating that, while the bill would repeal the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1998, states that have received grants under that act would be required to continue setting up school-to-work systems.
The committee also passed a Republican amendment that would require participants in job-training programs to have a high school diploma or a General Educational Development certificate, or to be enrolled in coursework to earn either credential.
The only vote of the Senate panel that did not split along party lines was a 12-to-4 vote in favor of an amendment that increased the proposed authorization for the Job Corps and other activities targeting at-risk youths, from $1.5 billion to $2.1 billion.
The amendment would reduce by $600 million authorized spending levels for the proposed "youth-development community block grant," a separate bill sponsored by Senator Kassebaum that the panel has not yet considered.
The panel rejected a proposal to retain the Job Corps, a residential program serving at-risk youths, as a federally run program. The Senate bill would close the 25 worst-performing centers and turn over administration of the remaining 85 centers to the states.
In a news release, Ms. Kassebaum said that a new General Accounting Office study of the Job Corps, which was unavailable last week, "confirms earlier reports of high dropout rates, dead-end jobs for graduates, and a flagrant waste of taxpayer money on national contracts for training and placement."
But others defended the Job Corps, and said they fear that governors might either turn it into a program for young criminal offenders or, conversely, screen out the most troubled youths to improve the program's success rate.
"It needs to stay a volunteer program" focused on education and training, argued Marion W. Pines, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.