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House Backs Overhaul of Voc.-Ed. Programs

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The House last week overwhelmingly approved legislation that would replace more than 100 federal vocational-training programs with block grants, giving states and their governors authority over most federal vocational-education and job-training money.

The House passed the proposed Consolidated and Reformed Education, Employment, and Rehabilitation Systems Act, known as the careers Act, on a vote of 345-79.

Aides to the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, which approved the measure in late May, said the bill was moved to the top of the House calendar to keep pace with developments in the Senate, where a similar consolidation plan was originally attached to a fast moving welfare-reform measure. (See Education Week, Sept. 20, 1995.)

Although the Senate voted to remove vocational-education provisions from the welfare bill, aides said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the House panel's chairman, and other leading members were anxious to pass their version of the bill in order to be ready for a conference committee.

The Senate proposals, approved by the Labor and Human Resources Committee as S 143, would consolidate some 90 vocational-education and job-training programs into a single, $6.1 billion block grant. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

The House measure, HR 1617, would replace more than 100 vocational-education, literacy, and job-training programs with three block grants to states and kill an additional 50 programs outright. Each of the block grants would address a broad area: youth workforce preparation, training for adult workers, and adult education and literacy. (See Education Week, May 24, 1995.)

Three Block Grants

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.

The bill originally included a fourth block grant, for vocational rehabilitation. But Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, succeeded in amending it on the floor to remove the vocational-rehabilitation provisions for separate consideration at a later date. The amendment passed 231-192.

"I like the careers bill when it deals with average employees that are laid off," Mr. Green said. "But when we deal with vocational rehabilitation, we should not lump [recipients] in with the general population."

However, some of his colleagues expressed more general opposition to the idea of replacing a multitude of federal programs with block grants.

"Block grants only work when they are fully funded," argued Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "If they are not fully funded, all the states are deciding, all the governors are deciding, is where to spread the pain, what programs to cut. To me that does not seem like much progress at all."

Too Much Flexibility?

Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa., introduced what he called a "tongue in cheek" amendment that he said would give the states all of the responsibility for vocational education and job training.

"What I am talking about is cutting out the middleman," he said. "Would it not make sense to let the states raise the money for these programs, run these programs themselves, distribute the funding, and cut out ... the federal government?"

Apparently somewhat embarrassed that his proposal was taken seriously, he apologized to Mr. Goodling, then withdrew the amendment, saying: "I was trying to make a point ... because I have a serious problem with block-granting everything to the states."

Democrats, led by Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., the ranking minority member on the House education committee, also attacked provisions that would allow governors to transfer 10 percent of their states' funding between youth-training programs and programs designed for adults.

He and other Democrats argued that the provision could reduce spending for youth programs by as much as $200 million per year, if the program were fully funded.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., said the transfer option is particularly problematic because the bill's authorized spending level is 20 percent below current funding levels for the programs that would be merged.

"This is a serious flaw that should be corrected," he said.

But Republicans maintained that the provisions would allow governors, many of whom support strong school-to-work transition programs, to focus more resources on youth training.

"Flexibility goes both ways," said Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis.

Mr. Gunderson said that he would prefer to retain the School-to-Work-Opportunities Act--which both the House and Senate bills would fold into block grants--as a separate program, but said he would wait to raise the issue when the legislation reaches a House-Senate conference.

Rep. Goodling added an amendment that would delay privatization of the Student Loan Marketing Association, which the bill would require, by two years. Mr. Goodling said this would give the quasi-governmental student-loan enterprise, commonly known as Sallie Mae, time to expand into other businesses.

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