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Practical Issues Hamper School-to-Work Applicants

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Washington

The departments of Education and Labor last week handed out $58 million in grants to 10 states under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994.

The new grants bring to 37 the number of states that have received the federal seed money. The program is designed to help states build programs that better prepare students for college and careers. The latest recipients are California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas.

The announcement further isolated the five states that failed to apply for the implementation funds.

Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia did not turn in paperwork by the Aug. 30 deadline. Some educators and newspapers in at least some of those states have questioned whether their nonparticipation was due to the influence of conservative groups that have characterized school-to-work programs as "socialist" and a form of centralized planning.

But the reasons for not applying are specific to each state and not necessarily ideological. Arkansas' bid, for example, was derailed by the legal problems of the former governor, Democrat Jim Guy Tucker, who resigned last summer.

"The grant application came out on the same day we swore in our new governor," said Mary Swoope, the school-to-work coordinator for the Arkansas education department. "Forty-five days is not enough to educate someone."

Ms. Swoope said the plans of nine regional school-to-work councils funded under an earlier school-to-work development grant would be incorporated into a statewide plan. When Arkansas does apply for the federal seed money, the state wants to find ways to let teachers become observers in different workplaces so instruction would be more relevant to job needs. Ms. Swoope said the final plan must be approved by the new Republican governor, Mike Huckabee.

No Philosophical Problems

Virginia's reason for not applying has to do with a strategy to improve the proposal and win higher funding, said Randolph A. Beales, the director of the state's school-to-work initiative.

News reports suggested recently that the administration of Republican Gov. George Allen submitted to pressure from conservative groups by failing to apply. But Mr. Beales said the state was "very aggressively pursuing school-to-work" and had "no philosophical problems" with the program. Virginia plans to apply for the next round of implementation-grant awards, he said.

"We made the decision that it would be better to wait and submit a strong application next year and try to get more total funding over five years," Mr. Beales said.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's reasons for not applying run deeper than those of Arkansas and Virginia. South Carolina officials had noted that the mandated involvement of labor unions caused them some hesitation about the program, but a misunderstanding also appears to have played a role.

Nancy Cassity Dunlap, the official responsible for school-to-work efforts at the South Carolina education department, said state officials did not apply for the current round of grants because of a clash of approaches that came to light in a report on the state program.

Outside Review

South Carolina's applications in two previous rounds of implementation grants were rejected, Ms. Dunlap said. Last spring, a team from Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based research organization hired by officials in Washington, visited the state to examine its school-to-work efforts.

The results of the external review raised concerns among state officials that their current approach built around the state's tech-prep program would not pass muster with the federal agency, and they weren't sure they wanted to make hasty modifications to a program that had broad political support, Ms. Dunlap said.

But Nancy Mathis, a spokeswoman for the national school-to-work office in Washington, said the state studies by Jobs for the Future should not have deterred any state from applying, because they were intended primarily to help the national office.

Officials here would not speculate on what kept states like Arkansas, Virginia, and South Carolina--as well as Georgia and Mississippi--from applying.

Instead, officials last week were boasting about the federal money that they were able to award.

The new grants range from $2 million to $22 million. The recent awards bring the total amount of awards under the program to $362 million.

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Correction: 
Clarification: Studies of state school-to-work programs prepared by Jobs for the Future were intended to give feedback. They were not connected to recent federal grants to states that were the subject of this story.

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