States Seek Voc. Ed.'s Help in Meeting Welfare Mandate

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Faced with the charge of putting thousands of welfare recipients to work in the next five years, state officials are beginning to look toward vocational education programs in high schools, community colleges, and technical institutes.

The nation's new welfare law--known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996--limits most adults to five years of federal welfare benefits over a lifetime. States also must place an increasingly large portion of their welfare caseloads into jobs and other work activities each year to qualify for federal aid.

Lawmakers in some states, such as Ohio, are considering even more stringent work requirements. To get full federal funding, states must pass their new welfare laws by July 1.

Teenagers are immediately affected by some of the changes to welfare.

School-age parents who lack a high school diploma or the equivalent must return to school or lose federal benefits, for example.

In addition, state officials argue that a high school diploma and some marketable career skills remain the best ticket teenagers have to stay off public assistance in the future.

"For every year you keep a teenage mother in school, you decrease the likelihood of accessing public assistance by 22 percent," said Jean C. Stevens, the acting commissioner of the office of workforce preparation and continuing education in the New York Department of Education. "That's very important."

Ms. Stevens added the federal law provides financial bonuses to states that reduce out-of-wedlock births the most--an issue best addressed by preventing pregnancies among high school students.

Making the Connection

But vocational educators acknowledge that serving the welfare population will test the mettle of their recent efforts to forge closer ties with the business community and to focus more on equipping students with the academic fundamentals that can lead to long-term success.

Although high school vocational programs are accustomed to handling students with diverse needs, they say, individuals on welfare often have severe personal problems and academic shortcomings that interfere with employability.

Nonetheless, vocational educators are confident they have plenty of programs at the ready.

Oklahoma has been among the first states to position vocational education to prepare welfare recipients for work, said Roy Peters, the state director of vocational-technical education.

By next year, he said, 20 of the state's 54 vocational-technical schools, which serve both high school students and adults, will offer special programs for welfare recipients that have been developed in collaboration with various industries.

The programs, which take as much as a year or as little as a few months to complete, lead to jobs that pay well enough to enable an individual to leave welfare. A program set up with the construction industry, for example, will teach students a marketable specialty--such as sheetrocking--rather than all of the skills involved in building a house.

Another program, currently limited to high school students, leads to jobs in the telecommunications industry. Students leaving the program typically get several job offers at a starting wage of about $11 an hour, a respectable sum for the region, Mr. Peters said. He added that adult welfare recipients may soon be admitted to the program.

In New York state, officials are talking up a state-funded high school program for pregnant and parenting teenagers that they say has reduced the pregnancy rate and enabled 96 percent of participants to earn a diploma. Ohio offers a similar program.

Even so, state officials are worried about whether they will be able to meet the new federal targets for placing welfare recipients in paying jobs.

20 Percent Solution

Each year between now and 2002, a state must place a larger share of its welfare clientele in work or risk losing federal aid. The figure starts at 25 percent this year and rises to 50 percent in 2002.

By law, states can count participation in vocational education, high school, or job-related education as meeting the work requirement--but only for 20 percent of welfare recipients.

A prime source of contention is how to calculate that 20 percent.

Is it, for example, 20 percent of the 25 percent who must find work in fiscal 1997, or is it 20 percent of a state's entire welfare caseload? The federal law is not clear on the issue.

The broader interpretation of the law, which is favored by the vocational education lobby, would enable five times as many welfare clients to meet the new work requirements while in education programs this year.

But a Republican staff member in the House who helped draft the provision said Congress intended the narrower interpretation to encourage people to find paid employment. "If that's not clear enough for the states," he said, "then this [provision] will be changed."

The penalty for falling short of the federal targets is severe, amounting to a loss of at least 5 percent of a state's welfare block grant.

For example, if Ohio missed the target just once, it would lose $36 million in federal aid, said Thomas N. Applegate, the associate director of business and industrial training and development for the state's department of education. The real cost is double that amount--or $72 million--he said, because the state must make up for lost federal money or forfeit all federal support.

Vocational education officials also are concerned that the emphasis on immediate job placement may lessen the focus on students' long-term fates.

Some educators expressed concerns that as states are forced to reach further into their welfare populations to meet the work requirements, they may try to recast vocational education as a stopgap training measure to maximize job placements and to preserve federal funding, rather than focusing on the development of long-term skills that could lead to successful careers.

"We must preserve the integrity of what is needed for the client, while pursuing what Congress has asked us to do--that is, get people off of welfare," Mr. Applegate said.

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