Voc. Ed. Proposals Likely To Stress Academics, Job Relevance

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Federal ambitions to revamp vocational education in the nation's schools will likely focus on increasing academic rigor, job relevance, and business involvement, members of Congress and the Clinton administration said last week.

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Speaking to 550 vocational educators who were in Washington to lobby their elected officials, both congressional and administration representatives seemed united in their beliefs about what needs strengthening in vocational education.

But they suggested that legislative proposals probably would take a different tack from last year's failed "Careers" bill.

The House-Senate compromise bill, HR 1617, was shelved by Republican leaders in the Senate in the waning days of the last Congress. It would have consolidated federal support for scores of vocational education and job-training programs under three huge block grants to the states. The bill also would have given broad authority to the governors in doling out federal money for job training. ("State Board To Distribute $7.3 Million to Districts Solely for Technology," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Although the intent was to streamline workforce-preparation programs, observers say the bill attempted to serve so many conflicting goals and constituencies that it collapsed under its own weight.

The major federal vocational education law, the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, expired last year but is still being funded by Congress.

A Separate Bill

Last week, congressional staff members from both parties said there was a better-than-even chance that vocational education and job training would be treated in two separate bills.

But Republican Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, still favors a combined bill.

Aides from both parties and chambers of Congress also downplayed the likelihood that governors would be given primary authority for how to spend federal vocational education money.

The prospect of having a separate bill and no block grants pleased officials of the American Vocational Association, based in Alexandria, Va., which held the conference here.

"It's looking good, having separate bills. The House bill last year moved money toward the governors--we want to avoid that," said Bret Lovejoy, the AVA's executive director.

The administration's proposal for vocational education will resemble the bill it submitted last year, "but with some significant differences," said Patricia McNeil, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for vocational and adult education.

She said it likely would promote career preparation "not in a specific but in a general way." It also would emphasize academics, technical skills, general employability--or SCANS--skills, and preparation for college.

But she cautioned that Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley has yet to sign off on the proposal.

Ms. McNeil expressed confidence that the current Congress would not attempt to eliminate the federal school-to-work effort or put it in a block grant, as the 104th Congress attempted.

Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he hoped lawmakers would take a "bipartisan, bicameral approach" to vocational education.

The shape of the legislation, he suggested, would be influenced by findings from field hearings that the House education oversight subcommittee is holding this year on "what works, what's wasted" in education programs. The hearings are highlighting basic academics, parent involvement, and the ways in which money gets into classrooms. ("State Officials Seek Flexibility, Regulatory Relief," March 12, 1997.)

Crush of Activity

But Congressional aides cautioned that the crush of legislative activity on Capitol Hill clouded the prospects for enacting vocational legislation any time soon.

Victor Klatt, a Republican staff member who works for Mr. Goodling, warned that four of the top 10 bills before the 105th Congress must be dealt with by the House education committee. He said any breakdowns in bipartisanship may shrink the prospects for passing a vocational education law this session.

Mr. Goodling alluded to the legislative difficulties posed by lobbying groups, including the AVA. He said he hoped that "bicameral," as well as bipartisan, action in the House and Senate might thwart the lobbyists' strategy of wheedling concessions from one chamber or the other that would complicate compromise efforts.

"None of you will be able to run from one side to the other side after one of us passes a bill," he told the vocational educators.

The unpredictable outcome of federal budget talks between the administration and Congress also creates uncertainty about the funding of vocational education programs.

Tony McCann, a staff member for the House appropriations subcommittee that handles education, said the appropriations process for fiscal 1998 may be delayed by the negotiations, which are already behind schedule.

He suggested that in deciding on funding levels for vocational education, congressional leaders would look at data on the overall effectiveness of such programs, the level of real support by business, and the extent of local buy-in. "How can you convince the federal government to do it when you can't convince the people who control 93 percent of the money to do it?" he asked.

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