Published Online: January 25, 2005
Published in Print: January 26, 2005, as Bush Plan Worries the Voc. Ed. Community

Bush Plan Worries the Voc. Ed. Community

President's Call for More High School Testing Could Mean Shift in Funding

The Bush administration’s recent unveiling of its plan to extend accountability and other academic measures into the nation’s high schools has caused backers of vocational education to worry that the proposal may squeeze their programs out of the federal budget.

Advocates for career and technical education in recent weeks have launched a pre-emptive strike to urge members of Congress and other influential parties to help them stave off potential cuts to their funding—even though the administration’s fiscal 2006 budget is not expected to be released until next month.

In particular, their goal is to preserve funding in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, the federal government’s primary vehicle for career-oriented school programs, which currently receive about $1.3 billion annually.

Concerns about next year’s budget spiked earlier this month, after President Bush spoke publicly about his secondary education proposal—and about changing the way the federal government provides aid for high schools. The plan calls for testing students in 9th, 10th, and 11th grades in reading and mathematics; expanding incentives to teachers working in high-poverty schools; and analyzing the academic records of incoming 9th graders to determine if they need help. The proposal carries an estimated $1.5 billion price tag, though the White House did not specify how much of that money would be new, as opposed to existing funding.

Speaking at a high school in Virginia two weeks ago, the president also called for consolidating some high school programs—though he did not specifically say cuts to vocational programs were on the way.

The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment on the vocational community’s concerns.

“The problem is they’re like silos,” Mr. Bush said of federal high school programs. “They’re prescriptions that may not meet the needs of the local high school, or the school district—you know, a program to promote vocational education, or to prepare for college, … or to encourage school restructuring.”

Not long after that speech, the Association of Career and Technical Education sent an alert to its 30,000 members, voicing concerns about the proposal’s effect on vocational education. A second organization, the National Association of State Directors of Career and Technical Education Consortium, issued a similar notice around the same time.

“Our greatest fear is that all, or most, of our budget would be cut to fund the president’s high school proposal,” said Christin M. Driscoll, the senior director of public policy for the Alexandria, Va.-based ACTE.

Vocational advocates note that during the past two budget years, the administration has called for bringing higher academic standards to the federal vocational program—while seeking to cut its funding from $1.3 billion to $1 billion. That money was later restored by Congress. In 2002, proponents went public with fears that the White House was planning to eliminate the Perkins program or move its functions into the Department of Labor, speculation that was dismissed by the administration. ("Advocates Warn Voc. Ed. Cuts May Be Afoot," Nov. 27, 2002.)

“They’ve dropped enough bread crumbs,” said Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the Washington-based state consortium, in summing up her concerns.

Congress at Work Again

That budget speculation also emerges as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Perkins Act, a process that federal lawmakers failed to reach agreement on before adjourning last year. Two reauthorization bills were introduced last year, in the House and the Senate. Because this is a new Congress, those proposals would have to be reintroduced if they are to become law.

Rep. Michael N. Castle

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., who led House reauthorization efforts last year, expects new legislation to closely follow last year’s bill, and hopes to have the measure approved by the House education committee by April, said his spokeswoman, Elizabeth B. Wenk. The lawmaker does not favor paying for the president’s high school plan through cuts to other education programs, such as vocational education, she said.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, issued a statement praising the president’s plan, while noting the importance of continued vocational funding “as a critical component of high school education.”

The Perkins legislation introduced last year in both chambers would have established various incentives and mandates for states to improve local vocational programs. The bills also would have created new indicators to judge the effectiveness of high school and college programs.

Yet some critics, such as Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Education Trust, say those bills need “substantial modifications” and lack the teeth necessary to force state and local programs to improve their academic rigor.

Mr. Wiener points to the findings of last year’s congressionally mandated National Assessment of Vocational Education. While that report indicated that the percentage of students taking core academic courses in English, mathematics, and science has risen in recent years, it also concluded that “secondary vocational education itself is not likely to be a widely effective strategy for improving academic achievement or college attendance without substantial changes to policy, curriculum, and teacher training.” ("Vocational Students Lag In Achievement, Report Says," July 14, 2004.)

Although the vocational community has fought off significant changes to their federal programs in recent years, that position leaves them vulnerable when federal officials—including the Bush administration—start pushing for changes in high schools, Mr. Wiener said.

“They might have protected their program [into] irrelevance,” said Mr. Wiener, whose Washington-based group promotes higher academic standards. “We have to distinguish between high-quality voc-ed and low-quality programs that don’t prepare students for today’s economy.”

Vol. 24, Issue 20, Pages 28,30

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