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Philosophical Disputes, Time Pressures Stall Bills To Revamp Voc.-Ed. System

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Negotiations to reconcile two different measures that would consolidate numerous federal vocational-education and job-training programs into block grants to the states have been stalled. The holdup, caused by a combination of philosophical differences and scheduling pressures, could doom efforts to rework school-to-work legislation in this Congress.

"The bills are very different," remarked one education lobbyist. "There are two different philosophies trying to do the same thing."

Reform-minded lawmakers hope to streamline a system that they say is overflowing with programs and yet does not effectively prepare young people for the world of work.

The General Accounting Office reports that the federal government now operates more than 150 vocational and job-training programs that are administered by 14 different agencies. The GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, also estimates that the federal government spends more than $20 billion annually on those programs.

Both the House and the Senate passed bills last year that would dramatically reduce the number of vocational-education programs and furnish job-training money directly to the states in the form of block grants--lump-sum payments with relatively few strings attached.

But the similarity between the two measures largely ends there.

Gubernatorial Authority

The critical differences are in how the two bills would allocate funding at the state level and who would control the funds.

The Senate bill, S 143, would combine funding for 80 federal programs into a single block grant, beginning in fiscal 1998. It would authorize $8 billion in spending per year.

Under the Senate version, at least 25 percent of a state's grant money would have to be used for school-based vocational education. Another 25 percent would be earmarked for other job-training programs. The bill would allow governors to decide how to spend the other half of their block grants, which could be used for any activities authorized in the bill.

The bill approved by the House, meanwhile, would consolidate near-ly 100 programs into three separate block grants supporting vocational education and training for young people, adult job training, and programs fostering family education and literacy. It gives governors no discretion in allocating spending among the categories.

The House measure would authorize about $5 billion annually, beginning in fiscal 1997.

Congressional aides remain optimistic that a compromise can be reached. But other observers pointed out that a conference committee on the bills originally was expected to convene in late November and that staff negotiations have been fitful ever since.

Congressional activity on other issues has been almost entirely stalled as the leadership focuses on budget negotiations with President Clinton and legislation needed to keep the government running. (See story, page 18.)

An aide to the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee said last week that it was "highly, highly unlikely" that lawmakers would meet in conference until after a recess that was scheduled to begin this week and continue until early February. Any substantive negotiations are unlikely to begin until mid-February at the earliest, the aide added.

The conference could be further delayed by continued budget disputes, and members' attention may be distracted by preparations for this year's election campaigns.

The vocational-education programs that would be superseded by the block grants would expire if not reauthorized this year. But Congress could buy time by passing a bill that extends current law.

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