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Conflicting Views of Voc. Ed. Lead to Dispute

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A legal dispute over who should pay for two Passaic County, N.J., boys to attend magnet schools in a neighboring county is raising questions about what constitutes vocational education.

"What we're fighting for is what is the true definition and intent of vocational education," said Evie Perruzzi, a local district board member in the Passaic County town of Pompton Lakes.

The two boys, both of whom are high school freshmen and live in Pompton Lakes, began attending the Academy for Engineering and Design Technologies and the Academy for Business and Computer Technologies in Bergen County last fall. Both schools are run by the Bergen County vocational district.

The students argue that their local district should pay for their transportation and $17,950 annual tuition because, they say, there are no programs in Passaic County that are comparable to those in Bergen County. Under state law, a school board must pay for students to attend a "vocational education" program in another county if a "comparable program" isn't offered in the county where the students live.

"Where you live should not determine the kind of education you receive," said David Becker, a lawyer representing the students,

But Pompton Lakes officials say they shouldn't have to pay because the Bergen County academies, which have a rigorous admissions process and are intended for gifted students, are not true vocational schools. Instead, they are "elite, quasi-private academic institutions," the district argued in legal documents.

"You don't go to a vocational school to get expertise in a trade for skilled labor and at the same time be offered [Advanced Placement] classes in math, science, and English," Ms. Perruzzi said.

A Changing Workforce

On the contrary, many vocational educators say, the trend in their field is to put a much greater emphasis on academics.

"To be an effective auto mechanic today, the requirements are much different than they were 10 or 15 years ago," said Tony Miller, the deputy superintendent for the Bergen County vocational district. He believes it's appropriate for the magnet schools to offer AP-level classes.

"The mission of this kind of public school has changed," he added.

Kimberly A. Green, the director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium, agrees. "Vocational education--where it is successful--is an integrated system of academics and technical education," she said.

So far, state Commissioner of Education Leo F. Klagholz has backed that view. In a ruling last summer, he told the Pompton Lakes school board to cover the costs of the two students, who are identified in legal documents only by their initials. "The state board's view of vocational education encompasses a range of levels from rudimentary to highly advanced," the ruling states.

The Pompton Lakes board responded with an appeal that posed new arguments. One is that the magnet schools don't fit the definitions for "vocational education" in the federal Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act.

"Nowhere do these definitions make college education a goal," the Pompton Lakes board argues. "Read as a whole the entire statute dictates the exact opposition conclusion. The Perkins Act continually references development of skill sets for students in a field they are about to enter."

In an unusual move, Commissioner Klagholz asked the state board of education if he could reconsider the case in light of the new Perkins argument, and the board granted his request last month. The state board also asked that an administrative law judge review the case and hold a fact-finding hearing. The date of the hearing has not yet been set.

'Free-for-All'

For Pompton Lakes, the case is about money as well as definitions. The per-pupil cost in the 1,700-student district is $8,327. With transportation expenses included, Ms. Perruzzi estimates the local board would need to spend $50,000 to pay for the two students to attend the magnet schools.

"I'm being asked to jeopardize the quality of education for an entire student body for the sake of two children," she said. "If this [dispute] is not resolved appropriately, it's going to be a free-for-all up here. We're going to end up bankrupt."

As an eventual solution to the money problem, Mr. Miller of the Bergen County vocational district proposed that all such districts in New Jersey upgrade their programs. If they offered comparable programs, they wouldn't have to pay for students to attend out-of-county vocational schools, he reasoned. "Every county has a technical school. Now it's a question of bringing them all to the same level," he said.

But some of Mr. Miller's peers within Bergen County, who also view the magnet schools as unfair competition, would not agree with such a solution. Five Bergen County districts signed a November resolution passed by the New Jersey School Boards Association that sided with Pompton Lakes' arguments.

"You're taking the ablest kids and giving them a private education with public funds," said Janice Dime, the superintendent of the local Paramus district in Bergen County.

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