Vocational education would suffer a “debilitating blow,” according to its advocates, if the Congress approves the Reagan Administration’s proposal to cut federal support for vocational programs in half next year.
“The Education Department, by stating that vocational education ‘should be a lower priority,’ has told the 80 percent of the population who do not want or need a four-year college degree for employment that their needs are not important and should not be met,” said Rosemary F. Kolde, president of the American Vocational Association.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill press briefing last week, Ms. Kolde charged that the Administration’s 1987 budget, which would eliminate federal grants for upgrading and modernizing vocational education, betrays President Reagan’s expressed commitment to the program.
Representatives of the National Education Association and the National School Boards Association also condemned the cuts at the briefing.
As proposed last month, the Administration’ spending plan singles out vocational education for a disproportionate share of funding reductions. Vocational programs would be cut by 52 percent-from $849.6 million this year to $408.1 million in 1987-as compared with a 17 percent cut for the Education Department over all.
The budget also calls for a rescission of $247 million in vocational-education funds the Congress has already appropriated for fiscal 1986.
Most of the proposed cuts would come from basic state grants, which account for 92 percent of federal spending for vocational education. Under the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act, state educational agencies may reserve up to 7 percent of these funds for program administration.
Of the remainder, 57 percent is set aside for “vocational-education opportunities” for special groups, including the handicapped, the limited-English-proficient, single parents and homemakers, and prison inmates. The other 43 percent goes for “program improvement, innovation, and expansion.”
The last category would be “zeroed-out” under the Administration’s proposal, while appropriations for the first two categories would be trimmed slightly.
Also targeted for elimination are current appropriations of $31.6 million for consumer and homemaking education, $7.5 million in grants to “community-based organizations” serving disadvantaged youth, and $3.7 million for bilingual vocational education.
Justification for Cuts
“Our request underscores the greater importance of general education for jobs,” said Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in explaining the budget provisions last month. Also, the decision “reflects the fact that states spend about $10 for every $1 they receive from federal funds in this area,” he said.
“The uncertain relationship between vocational education and labor-market outcomes” is another justification for the proposed cuts, according to President Reagan’s budget message.
But Ms. Kolde disputed the idea that vocational education does little to help students find employment. She cited a 1982 survey in which 85 percent of employers said they preferred to hire graduates of vocational programs for jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree.
“Vocational education remains the primary bridge between school and the workplace,” she said, “serving 19 million students in 760,000 programs in over 20,000 institutions across the country.”
Ms. Kolde quoted comments made by President Reagan during his 1984 visit to a vocational school in Romeoville, Ill.: “It is career training and it is opportunity. You are looking ahead. You’re getting sensible training that matches the needs of your community. And I’m very proud that our government could be a partner in what is going on here.”
To make good on that commitment, she said, the Administration should “level-fund” vocational education next year, maintaining support at the 1986 level.
The proposed cuts follow “substantial reductions” in previous years, said Michael Edwards, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. “Indeed, the President’s budget proposes spending $840 million less in fiscal 1987 than would be needed just to maintain the fiscal 1980 level of services, adjusted for inflation.”
He added that the budget proposal is “educationally unsound and economically counterproductive,” because it would increase the already large pool of unskilled and unemployable youths.
Edward R. Kealy, director of federal programs for the N.S.B.A., charged that the Administration’s priorities reflect “an elitist attitude. They overlook the fact that many of our communities have a commitment to strong vocational-education programs.”
John K. Wu, acting assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said that “it would serve no useful purpose” to respond to specific criticisms. “I’m not going to batter back and forth on this,” he said.
“I just want to indicate that Secretary Bennett put a heavy emphasis on aid to the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, and the handicapped,” Mr. Wu said. “Because federal money has been able to generate state and local dollars successfully, we felt the cuts would not hurt that much.”
“We both want to do what’s best for voc-ed and what’s best for the country, which is facing deficits,” he added.
Dean Griffin, the A.V.A.'S acting executive director, said his group has begun “a grassroots effort to convince the White House and especially the Congress that these priorities serve neither the business community nor the disadvantaged population groups.”
About 300 vocational educators from around the country descended on Washington last week to begin buttonholing members of the Congress. According to James Day, an A.V.A. lobbyist, they pressed the following points:
- Although federal funding represents only 10 percent of vocational-education spending nationwide, in the average state, such as Ohio, it provides 60 percent of state technical assistance to upgrade programs under Title IICb) of the Perkins Act. Thus, the cuts would sabotage efforts to keep equipment and training up to date.
- The Education Department has argued that vocational graduates’ “superior performance, relative to graduates who did not take vocational education, tends to disappear after a few years in the labor force.” But this claim comes from a 10-year-old study, according to the A.V.A., and is contradicted by more recent findings that vocational graduates enjoy an edge in earnings and productivity.
- Again, contrary to the Administration’s view, the cuts would be detrimental to disadvantaged youths, the A.V.A. says. The “community-based organizations,” whose funding would be canceled, serve areas where the youth unemployment rate is around 40 percent and dropout rates approach 50 percent.
- Elimination of funds for consumer and homemaking education would fall mo t heavily on young people in depressed areas. And such cuts run counter to the President’s concern in the recent State-of-the Union message “for an America of wisdom that honors the family, knowing that as the family goes, so goes our civilization.”
- At their recent conference, members of the National Governors’ Association indicated that the states are unlikely to “pick up” fiscal responsibility for programs that lose their federal funding.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1986 edition of Education Week