Voc. Ed. Pinched by State Budgets, Federal Policies
Vocational education programs are feeling the pressure from all sides.
Administrators and teachers in career and technical programs say that the trickle-down effect of tighter state budgets, coupled with district-level cuts, are leading school officials to trim elective courses that fall outside the scope of core academic requirements.
Some school districts, as a result, are being forced to pare down vocational education programs—or modify their schedules, to save them from more dramatic cuts.
Vocational educators also fear that in the years ahead, their cause will take a back seat as districts devote more staff and financial resources to meeting the mandates for academic progress spelled out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"From our viewpoint, we have seen some fairly dramatic decreases," said Lauren Baker, the coordinator for career and technical education in the Milwaukee schools. "No Child Left Behind has set up a fairly difficult dichotomy for programs like ours."
In Detroit, the 157,000-student district's overall spending on vocational education rose slightly in 2003-04, said L. Kimberly Peoples, the executive director of the office of workforce development for the city's public schools. But state funding for a program to help middle and high school students choose careers fell in Detroit from some $1.2 million to $50,000 this year, she said.
"There have been cuts—deep cuts—and we may suffer some more," she said. At the same time, the district's vocational education programs are being asked to support the federal and state push to raise student achievement, she said.
In Conecuh County, Ala., school leaders faced the possibility of closing their vocational center, partly because of reductions in state funding. Eventually, they were able to save the popular program by leasing out the facility to a nearby community college, and running career and technical classes out of their high school instead.
That move saved the 1,900-student district about $300,000, Superintendent Ronnie Brogden said. But he warned that the vocational program's chances for surviving more cuts were slim. And that is an ominous statement because Alabama is in the midst of one of the worst budget crises in its history. ("As Promised, Cuts Follow Failed Alabama Tax Vote," Oct. 8, 2003.)
"When you start cutting electives, all we have left are [vocational education programs]," Mr. Brogden said. "The only other areas are core courses, required for graduation."
Milwaukee's public schools have cut at least two vocational programs from the 2002-03 academic year to 2003-04, both at the middle school level. The district also has about 13 fewer instructors teaching those subjects than it did last year, some of whom retired, Ms. Baker estimated.
Moreover, she said, those reductions are hitting programs that already have absorbed waves of reductions stretching back several years.
Since the 1998-99 school year, the 105,000-student district has cut 41 posts in vocational education, worth more than $3 million in salaries and benefits, according to financial estimates provided by the district, which has a general-fund budget of about $1.1 billion.
Squeezed on Several Sides
Donna M. Harris-Aikens, a national advocate for career and technical education, agreed with district officials who said they were under pressure to devote larger portions of school days to meeting the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. Some districts responded by adding an extra period at the end of the day for for-credit vocational classes, or arranging noncredit training after school.
"They're trying to doing things more creatively," said Ms. Harris-Aikens, the director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, in Washington. "The shrinking of the available school day" had put new burdens on vocational programs, she said.
Worries about the future of career and technical instruction gripped many state and local officials earlier this year, when the Bush administration proposed a major shift in the mission of the federal vocational program, which awards funding to K-12 schools and community colleges.
Those plans called for replacing the federal program with one that places a heavier emphasis on teenagers' academic achievement and preparation for college. The proposal, which is still under discussion, also would require states to award money to local schools on more of a competitive basis, and allow states to shift vocational funding to support their federal Title I programs for needy students.
Overall, the proposal called for cutting funding for the federal vocational program from $1.3 billion in fiscal 2003 to $1 billion in fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1. The bulk of money devoted to vocational education—at least 90 percent, by some estimates—comes from state and local sources. Still, backers of vocational programs fear the proposed federal reductions would hurt them.
State leaders are watching Congress as it debates the vocational education budget for fiscal 2004. As of last week, the recommended spending in the House and Senate versions topped $1.3 billion.
Susan Sclafani, the acting assistant secretary for vocational and adult education in the U.S. Department of Education, said she does not believe that districts are being forced to make stark choices between keeping vocational programs and meeting the goals in the No Child Left Behind Act.
But she thinks that schools are being asked to rework vocational classes and course schedules to make sure that students in career and technical classes are not skirting academic requirements.
"People are going to see a focus on a different aspect of vocational education," Ms. Sclafani added, one that is "more rigorous, more relevant, and more connected with postsecondary opportunities."
The changes proposed by the federal Education Department would compel districts to re-evaluate their vocational programs and improve them, she said.
"If they're going to do the same things with the money," she said of programs receiving federal aid, "it's a waste of money."
Vol. 23, Issue 9, Pages 19,22