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Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as School-to-Work Opponents Unable To Block Funding

School-to-Work Opponents Unable To Block Funding

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When school-to-work administrators talk about "the opposition" to their programs, they use strong words.

There's a "continuing assault on school-to-work from the far right," Irene Lynn, then the acting director of the National School-to-Work Office, said last summer at a national conference. Opponents are "well-organized and extremely vocal," she added.

That sentiment struck a chord with school-to-work coordinators at the meeting, who peppered speakers with questions on how to meet the attacks.

But a review of what "the opposition" has actually accomplished so far suggests that its reputation may be greater than its influence.

While opponents have managed to make life difficult for some state school-to-work coordinators, they have had little, if any, effect on policies.

"We have not had any success in stopping the flow of money," lamented Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Alton, Ill.-based Eagle Forum, a conservative nonprofit organization that opposes school-to-work programs.

Indeed, neither Ms. Schlafly nor a spokeswoman for the National School-to-Work Office, which administers federal school-to-work funding, could point to one piece of state legislation restricting school-to-work programs that has passed, though at least a handful of such bills have been proposed.

Federal Funding Intact

On the national level, school-to-work opponents have failed to persuade Congress to cut federal funding for the programs. The omnibus federal spending bill approved last week includes $250 million for school-to-work programs in the current fiscal year, despite a House recommendation to reduce the funding to $150 million.

Ms. Schlafly also declined to characterize national school-to-work activism as "well organized."

"Our method of organization is I write about [school-to-work issues] in the 'Phyllis Schlafly Report.' It goes out to parents' groups that are very much agitated about it," she said.

And when Donna Hearne, a former 6th grade teacher who serves as the Eagle Forum's point person on school-to-work programs, was told that the opposition effort has a reputation for being well-organized, she said, "When I hear those things, I sort of laugh."

Ms. Hearne is the executive director of the Constitutional Coalition, a nonprofit organization in St. Louis that follows education issues. She and two full-time assistants help activists track down public school-to-work documents through state offices or the Internet.

"There's no organization leading the fight against this. It's the American people finding out what's happening by going to the original sources," Ms. Hearne said.

The school-to-work movement is intended to help young people explore career interests and relate their studies to the real world. Under the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, state governments have received $1.1 billion so far to distribute to local partnerships. Funding under the act will expire in 2001.

Ms. Schlafly said she views the school-to-work concept as "tracking children into specific lines of work as chosen by business-school partnerships."

In addition, she said, "the directions [for school-to-work] come from the federal government. It's an attempt to control the curriculum."

An informal phone survey of state heads of school-to-work programs last week turned up a number of examples of recent activism by opponents of school-to-work programs:

  • In Missouri, a bill was introduced in the Senate this year that would have required any district or state agency getting involved in such programs to obtain approval from the legislature.
  • In Arkansas, a group of activists regularly shows up at regional school-to-work planning meetings and sometimes is disruptive, according to Jean McGann, the state coordinator of the career-opportunities initiatives.
  • A steady stream of citizens testified against school-to-work programs early this year at several meetings of the Texas state board of education.

None of these activities has had a lasting mark, according to state school-to-work coordinators.

In Missouri, the bill concerning school-to-work approval died in committee. In Arkansas and Texas, state coordinators spent a lot of time fulfilling a flood of requests for state documents from activists but otherwise were not affected in their work.

Foothold in Kansas

One of the few states that have experienced a concrete action resulting from anti-school-to-work activism is Kansas, where the state school board voted last month that the education department should have nothing to do with federal school-to-work funds.

While it's legally up to Gov. Bill Graves to decide who should distribute school-to-work money, the state board members wanted to make a statement, said board Chairman Kevin P. Gilmore. He said he's concerned that the federal government has set up a process for funding school-to-work programs that sidesteps the authority of state school boards.

While the vote may not change anything, it does put the Kansas Department of Education, which is processing a $16.8 million federal school-to-work grant, in a precarious position.

Gov. Graves, who is up for re-election next week, has given his assurance that school-to-work funding will stay in the department, said Vickie A. Kelly, the project manager for school-to-work programs in Kansas.

"We don't know if--due to elections--that will change," she said, "or whether the governor will leave it at the department of education, or he will move it to another agency."

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 20,22

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