Lawmakers Appear To Near Voc.-Ed. Accord
Increased pressure from congressional leaders to complete work by late this month may lead to an agreement on legislation that would drastically reduce the number of federal vocational-education programs and give states more control over those programs, aides said last week.
Little progress has been made in resolving several thorny issues, the congressional aides said. But the leadership's push may give lawmakers, who return this week from a spring recess, an incentive to resolve the differences between House and Senate bills that have been in a conference committee since last fall.
The delays, meanwhile, have given outspoken conservative opponents of the legislation an unusual opportunity to try to persuade borderline supporters to change sides.
At stake is a bipartisan effort to consolidate more than 150 vocational programs that now are administered by 14 federal agencies into block grants to states. The General Accounting Office reports that the federal government spends more than $20 billion annually on those programs.
Supported by President Clinton as well as lawmakers from both parties, both the House and Senate bills would attempt to pare down the number of programs, reduce federal spending on job training, and place more control in the hands of state and local officials.
But organized opposition to what many congressional aides characterize as peripheral issues apparently has persuaded some former supporters to question whether the bills would enlarge, rather than reduce, the federal role in vocational education.
For example, the Family Research Council, a Washington-based conservative research and advocacy group, has been arguing that the legislation would require all students to undergo some form of vocational education.
Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of the Eagle Forum, a conservative advocacy group based in Alton, Ill., has attacked the legislation in her syndicated newspaper columns and on the Internet, arguing, among other things, that it would allow the government to impose a central employment-planning scheme similar to the mechanisms employed in the former Soviet Union.
"Their approach has been to focus on largely peripheral issues and make misleading claims," a House aide said.
For example, aides said, while critics say that all job applicants would be screened by a federally controlled, computerized job bank, the legislation only authorizes the establishment of a computerized database of job information to assist in placement.
Aides involved in the negotiations said that some published reports have exaggerated the influence of opponents of the legislation. But the aides acknowledged that the lengthy conference process has provided critics with a window of opportunity.
A spokesman for Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., for example, said that Mr. Hyde, an influential conservative, has become concerned about how much additional control the legislation would give the federal government over information about available employment and confidential information about job seekers.
Conferees were selected in late October with the hope that the conference committee might be completed as early as late November.
But several major differences between the House and Senate approaches and a full legislative calendar, dominated by budgetary debate, have so far allowed only fitful discussions of the bills between congressional aides. (See Education Week, Jan. 31, 1996.)
"It's an incredibly complex bill," said an aide to the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee. "And the members have had a lot on their plates."
One divisive issue is the bills' different program structures.
The Senate bill, S 143, would combine funding for 80 federal programs into a single block grant, beginning in fiscal 1998. It would allow governors to decide how to spend half of their block grants, and earmark the other half for particular activities. It would authorize $8 billion in spending per year.
The bill approved by the House, meanwhile, would consolidate nearly 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 would give governors no discretion to move spending among categories.
The House measure would authorize about $5 billion annually, beginning in fiscal 1997.
Other contentious issues include whether governors or chief state school officers should control vocational-education funds and whether to require states to use a voucher system to provide job training.
Aides to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., and Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who are heading the conference committee, said last week that they were hopeful that many of the troublesome issues soon could be resolved.
Vocational-education groups, including the American Vocational Association, have urged their members to express support for a compromise that can pass this year.
Although the vocational programs that would be superseded by the legislation would expire if not reauthorized this year, Congress could pass a bill that extends the current law.