Storm Clouds Over Ed-Tech Law's Renewal

Approval in House, speed bump in Senate

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Congress has made a late, bipartisan push to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which governs vocational and other programs that teach workforce and career-related skills.

But it's still unclear, with a presidential election and a lame-duck session coming up, whether lawmakers will be able to get a bill to President Barack Obama's desk before a new administration and new session of Congress begin.

Written by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act—passed by a 405-5 vote in the House last month—would provide states and districts more leeway when it comes to accountability and goals for CTE programs. It also would establish a new definition for students concentrating in such programs and give states more flexibility over their use of federal dollars.

For the most part, both lawmakers and CTE advocates have hailed the bill. But momentum was checked last month when the Senate education committee postponed a hearing on a Republican-backed Perkins reauthorization bill. The main political flashpoint with the Senate bill: proposed prohibitions on the authority of the U.S. secretary of education that echo separate fights over the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Funding for the Perkins Act stands at about $1.1 billion in fiscal 2016 and is the largest source of federal funding for high schools. It was last reauthorized in 2006. Retooling Perkins has been at the top of Congress' education agenda for the past few years.

"Perkins has always been a bipartisan issue, so we're hopeful that things work out in the Senate and they can find a bipartisan way forward," said Alisha Hyslop, the director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education.

The main concern of various CTE advocates appears to be how the House bill defines a "concentrator" in such programs. Who gets categorized that way, in turn, would affect how states and schools are held accountable for the outcomes of their CTE programs.

For high school students, the House bill defines concentrators as those who have "completed three or more career and technical education courses, or completed at least two courses in [a] single career and technical education program or program of study."

In a letter sent to lawmakers last month, 24 education associations and other groups wrote that the definition is overly broad and should center more on those students focusing on specific CTE courses of study.

"Combining the populations into one definition of 'concentrator' will diminish data quality and make it difficult to truly determine the impact of CTE programs," the groups wrote.

Hyslop also noted that according to 2009 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, around 36 percent of high school graduates have earned at least two credits in a single area of study in CTE. That's an appropriate share of students to include in accountability plans, she argued, without including students that "never got in-depth enough to earn a certification that would actually have value in the labor market."

Incorporating a Blueprint

But in several other respects, both sides of the aisle have praised the legislation.

Rep. Thompson lauded the additional flexibility the reauthorization would give states–they could apply a greater share of federal Perkins funding for their own CTE funding formulas or competitive grants, for example. And Clark said the Perkins bill would direct more resources to promising CTE programs, as well as those that are well-aligned with workforce needs.

As with ESSA, the bill would do away with increasing long-term performance targets for states' CTE programs, which many came to see as similar to the much-maligned measure of adequate yearly progress under the law's predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

As evidence of the House bill's bipartisan structure, many elements of the Obama administration's 2012 blueprint for revamping career and technical education are incorporated into how it would handle an innovation-grant program, said Steve Voytek, the government-relations manager at Advance CTE, a group of state leaders.

This program would help bring innovative and successful CTE programs to scale, with local matching money required to supplement the federal aid. It would also place a priority on programs that serve students from low-income backgrounds.

Political Fight Looms

But it's unclear what will happen with respect to the Senate reauthorization bill now that the education committee in that chamber has put the brakes on publicly discussing it and possibly voting on it.

Democrats zeroed in on language in the GOP-backed bill that would place numerous prohibitions on the education secretary. It would prevent the secretary, when considering and approving states' Perkins plans, from prescribing the targets for states' CTE programs as a condition of approval, the progress expected from certain groups of students, and any specific CTE accountability indicators, among other restrictions.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the Senate education committee chairman, has been battling the U.S. Department of Education for some time over its power under ESSA, especially with respect to regulations governing accountability and federal spending.

That fight could undo the productive bipartisan work that's gotten Perkins reauthorization quite a long way this session of Congress, said Sasha Pudelski, an assistant director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

"I'm concerned that politics in the Senate will get the better of policy," Pudelski said.

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The Senate bill also would put more extensive requirements on the use of Perkins funds than the House legislation, according to advocates.

But unlike in previous years when only education advocates were truly focused on getting Perkins reauthorized, other groups have started investing political capital in the effort, Voytek said. That's why he remains optimistic.

"You've seen a massive growth in interest from other stakeholder groups in the private sector, particularly really big employers, that have been really interested in seeing Perkins reauthorization get done this year," Voytek said.

Vol. 36, Issue 07, Pages 18-19

Published in Print: October 5, 2016, as Storm Clouds Loom Over Push for Ed-Tech Law's Renewal
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