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Okla. Officials Debate School-to Work Oversight

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The Oklahoma attorney general has cast doubt on the future of a state school-to-work panel, created by Gov. Frank Keating, that has gained a reputation as a foe of federal training programs.

Attorney General Drew Edmondson, a Democrat, issued an opinion this month indicating that the school-to-work council, a 24-member panel appointed by the Republican governor, must soon disband unless the legislature votes to re-establish it.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers have their own ideas about a new council. They plan to shift control of school-to-work programs back to the Oklahoma Department of Vocational and Technical Education, a solution that would be anathema to Mr. Keating.

The political fight has become more tense in the days since Mr. Edmondson's opinion was released.

Democratic lawmakers contend the department would run the school-to-work programs far more efficiently that the existing advisory body, which they argue reflects Mr. Keating's hostility toward the federal school-to-work philosophy.

Mr. Keating already has pledged to veto such a proposal.

"We think that Oklahoma has the best vo-tech system in the United States," said Rick Buchanan, a spokesman for the governor. "But our feeling is that those people were hired to run vo-tech, not school-to-work."

Intrusion a Concern

The governor's critics have seized on the attorney general's opinion as a defining moment for Mr. Keating.

"This opinion is going to tell us, once and for all, whether the governor is behind school-to-work," said Rep. James Hager, the chairman of the House education committee.

Mr. Hager and Sen. Ed Long, both Democrats, have introduced the new measure. They note that while it would abolish the existing panel, it would create a new advisory committee to help channel federal school-to-work funding.

But Mr. Buchanan said that the governor is pleased with the current setup and believes that a group that includes business representatives who are aware of labor-market trends is more qualified to dole out $3.2 million in school-to-work grants than state vocational-education officials, who are more familiar with technical instruction.

Governor Keating maintains that the business community should have a big say in any "bottom-up program."

"It has to include private-industry people," Mr. Buchanan said. "They would bring to the table the debate as to what business needs."

But Democrats in the legislature doubt Mr. Keating's motives. The governor has criticized federal school-to-work programs, arguing that by accepting federal dollars, the state also is buying into a system that emphasizes centralized economic planning.

In a recent speech, the governor declared that Oklahoma must not recreate, "by accident, the European model where my 16-year-old son is a 'soon to be' riveter."

Critics argue that the council appointed by Mr. Keating has been slow to implement federal school-to-work legislation, only recently approving application forms for the program after months of discussion.

Undoing Fiat

Attorney General Edmondson specifically advised schools to begin applying for the federal funding. His opinion also clarified an important legal question that had been raised by the governor's critics: whether the governor acted properly when he created the panel by executive order last year. The group was created after the legislature had adjourned.

Mr. Edmondson said that while Mr. Keating had the authority to create the advisory body by gubernatorial fiat, the legislature had to approve his decision in its current session or the council's authority would expire.

Rep. Don McCorkell Jr., a Democrat who requested that Mr. Edmondson rule on the legality of the governor's action, said he was pleased at the attorney general's opinion. Mr. McCorkell argued that the governor "has attempted to wrest power the people had conferred only to the legislature."

Oklahoma's legislative session ends May 31. Observers said last week that there was enough time remaining in the session to bring a school-to-work bill to the floor for consideration.

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