Voc. Ed. Funds For Needy Said Going Elsewhere

By Reagan Walker — March 15, 1989 6 min read

Washington--Poorer communities in many states may not be receiving their fair share of federal vocational-education funds, an official of the General Accounting Office told lawmakers last week.

The comments came in testimony at the opening Congressional hearing on the reauthorization of the act governing such expenditures, which total $918 million this year.

“2 + 2": A promisingnew vocational plan. Page 25.

William J. Gainer, the gao’s director for education and employment issues, said a review of practices in six states had shown that, in some economically depressed areas, per-pupil spending in vocational programs was lower than that found in wealthier communities--even though the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act specifically mandates that funds be directed to the poorer communities.

Mr. Gainer told the House Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education Subcommittee that several factors in the application of the law all tended to direct funding away from low-income communities.

These include, he said, the criteria used in some states to determine economically depressed areas, the funding formula for the disadvantaged student set-aside, and the reallocation of funds from districts that cannot meet the matching requirement.

The g.a.o., which is the investigative arm of the Congress, looked at 20 local programs in the six states it examined to determine how the Perkins funds were being spent. The states reviewed were Arkansas, California, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Under the Perkins Act, more than half of Continued on Page 24

Voc. Ed. Funds Bypass

Poorer Areas, Auditor Finds

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all federal funds must be allocated to “economically depressed areas.”

The law defines an economically depressed area as a community in which there is a large concentration of low-income families and an unemployment rate at least 50 percent higher than the national or state average for three consecutive years.

Education Department regulations say states may also consider as economically depressed those areas with a high concentration of Chapter 1 students or students eligible for reduced-price or free lunches.

But in three of the six states studied--Arkansas, California, and Pennsylvania--economically depressed areas were shown to have received less program-improvement funding per student under the Perkins Act than other areas.

The gao also found, Mr. Gainer said, that Arkansas, Maryland, and Pennsylvania had classified more than 50 percent of localities as economically depressed.

In his testimony, the official cited the classification method used in Pennsylvania as an example of the funding problem. State officials there, he said, used as one of their criteria the total number of low-income individuals in a community, rather than its “concentration” of poverty.

The result, he noted, was that Montgomery County, the state’s third-largest, had been designated as economically depressed even though it has the highest median family income in the state--and one of the lowest poverty rates.

At the same time, the method excluded a number of less-populated counties with much lower median family incomes and much higher poverty rates than Montgomery.

Thus, Tioga County, a largely low-income rural area that was not classified as economically depressed, received $68 in federal funds for each vocational student, while Montgomery County received $114.

Mr. Gainer said the Education Department must approve each state’s criteria but has done so without analyzing the funding impact on individual school districts.

He recommended that the reauthorized legislation assure that localities meeting the intended criteria for economic disadvantage receive at least as much per pupil as other areas.

Non-Poor Students Included

The formula used to target some vocational funding to disadvantaged students is also being applied in ways that effectively diminish allocations to low-income areas, Mr. Gainer told the House panel.

Currently, one-half of the formula is based on a district’s total number of low-income students, while the other half is based on the number of vocational students who are academically disadvantaged and/or low-income.

The inclusion of students who have academic difficulties but are not low-income has had the effect of shifting Perkins funds away from poorer communities, Mr. Gainer said.

For example, the San Ramon, Calif., school district received 27 times as much funding per low-income student as the Oakland, Calif., district, whose median family income is less than half that of San Ramon.

Of the 600 disadvantaged students enrolled in vocational educa4tion in San Ramon, 12 “at most” were low-income, Mr. Gainer said. He recommended removing the category of academically disadvantaged students from the formula.

Returned Cash Rerouted

In four of the six states studied, a substantial number of school districts returned their Perkins allocations designated for disadvantaged and handicapped students, either because the amounts were too small to be used effectively or the localities were unable to meet the law’s matching requirement, Mr. Gainer said.

Because the Perkins Act is silent on how states are to redistribute returned funds, they are often reallocated to wealthier districts that are better able to meet the federal matching requirement, Mr. Gainer said.

He suggested that the Congress mandate that redistributed funds be allocated in the same proportion as original allocations.

‘Neither Disaster Nor Boon’

In a separate study of four school districts, the g.a.o. analyzed the impact of education-reform efforts on the achievement of disadvantaged students and their enrollments in vocational education.

Specifically, the researchers looked at reforms that have imposed more stringent course requirements in high schools, said Eleanor Chelimsky, assistant comptroller general for program evaluation and methodology.

Ms. Chelimsky told the subcommittee that reforms in the four districts, which the study leaves unnamed, have been “neither a disaster nor a boon” for students’ performance over all.

The data gathered by the gao also showed, she said, “no dramatic or consistent effect” of reforms on either the drop-out rates of at-risk students or their enrollment in vocational courses.

Ms. Chelimsky said detailed findings of the study would be included in a written report later this year. But she suggested the results could not be generalized beyond the sites studied.

No Single Performance Measure

The subcommittee also received findings last week from a study by the Office of Technology Assessment on performance standards in secondary vocational education.

The ota report concludes that while job placements, earnings, unemployment rates, and other labor indicators can provide some measures of program success, “it will always be virtually impossible to account fully for the geographical, demographic, and other nonschool factors that determine individual success in the labor market.”

Competency tests can also provide assessments of program success, the report says, but such tests give only partial indications of effectiveness and may drive some school officials to “strive to meet test standards at the expense of teaching skills purportedly measured by the tests.”

No single measure fully captures the complex goals of secondary-level vocational programs, it says.

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Voc. Ed. Funds For Needy Said Going Elsewhere