Advocates Warn Voc. Ed. Cuts May Be Afoot
Some of the nation's largest career and technical education organizations are openly voicing worries that the Bush administration may attempt to eliminate funding for the federal vocational education program, or transfer its functions to the Department of Labor.
Concerns about potential budget cuts were so great last week that at least two vocational education advocacy groups warned their members by Internet and e- mail to urge members of Congress to fight any such proposal—whether it exists officially on paper or not.
The Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., announced last week in a posting on its Web site that it had learned through "reliable sources" that the administration would propose to eliminate funding for the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act. That law is the primary funding mechanism within the Department of Education's office of vocational and adult education.
For fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30, the vocational program's budget was roughly $1.3 billion. If that money were cut—and administration officials declined to confirm or knock down reports of such a plan—the career and technical organization suggested the money would be funneled to the financially strapped Pell Grant program, which provides college aid to low-income students.
The vocational group, which advocates education programs that prepare youths and adults for careers, has about 30,000 members, including teachers, administrators, and counselors in high schools, community colleges, and career education colleges.
"We're very concerned about it," Nancy O'Brien, the senior director of public policy for the ACTE, said of the possible move. "In our estimation, the threat is very real."
Those fears were echoed by the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, a Washington group that on Nov. 21 e-mailed its entire membership of state officials about the perceived threat.
Donna Harris- Aikens, the association's government relations director, said her organization had heard talk of shifting programs into the Labor Department for months.
'Rumor and Speculation'
A report suggesting the administration was considering the cuts first appeared in Education Daily, a Washington-based newsletter. Its Nov. 21 story reported the administration had included the cuts in a draft of its fiscal 2004 budget, sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Department of Education spokesman Dan Langan would not confirm or deny that any such budget-cutting proposal had been made. But he said reports on budget talks for next year had been "wildly inaccurate" and based on "rumor and speculation."
The department is only beginning to put together its budget requests for fiscal 2004, and to develop proposals on the vocational education program as part of reauthorization of the Perkins Act, scheduled to begin next year, Mr. Langan said. "We will continue to move forward with proposals to enhance and strengthen vocational education," he said.
Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the administration's policy was not to comment on the president's budget proposal until its release in early February. She said the administration was committed to fully funding the Pell Grant program, but would support other education initiatives, too. "We haven't made any clear decisions yet," Ms. Call said.
The department's vocational education office supports state and local programs for building the academic and technical skills of students in high schools and community colleges. The program awards funding through several sources, including state grants, to support state, high school, and community college activities.
While the budget risk to vocational education is as yet unclear, the Pell Grant program's needs are well known. Earlier this year, Congress added $1 billion in its supplemental budget to make up a shortfall in the $10.3 billion program, which provides grants to at least 4 million students.
But that additional funding came only after a tenacious fight, in which Capitol Hill Democrats and Republicans accused each other of shortchanging the program. Meanwhile, higher education advocates have warned that the spiraling costs of college could shut out many low-income students if more money isn't poured into the Pell program.
Several supporters of the agency's vocational education program said it has a proven record of encouraging students to stay in school, and thus has had an impact on access to college, too.
Beth B. Buehlmann, the executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation, a nonprofit affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said if the administration is in fact proposing cuts, it could be viewed as "a shot across the bow" to vocational education. The warning might mean that the administration is serious about seeing proof of vocational programs' effectiveness during the reauthorization process next year.
Some congressional insiders see little evidence of support for cutting vocational education funding.
"If this proposal is true, I think it would probably receive a lot of opposition on the Hill," said one House GOP aide. "This funding is critical."
Vol. 22, Issue 13, Pages 20,23