Senate Passes Bill Governing Vocational Education

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The Senate passed the Workforce Investment Partnership Act of 1997 last week despite concerns from some state and federal officials that an amendment to the bill could hinder vocational education.

Sen. John Ashcroft

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and passed by unanimous consent, states that none of the funds made available under the act may be used for programs authorized under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994.

Sen. Ashcroft, an opponent of school-to-work programs, said he sought the delineation to make sure that job-training money designated for adults is not used in any way to expand school-to-work activities.

But two state vocational education administrators said the amendment could create problems because vocational education and school-to-work programs frequently overlap.

"It is an audit nightmare," said Lynda Hartnig, an educational policy coordinator for workforce development for the Florida Department of Education. "We've been looking for more flexibility in crossing over funds, not less."

In Florida, school-to-work activities are basically an extension of vocational education to all students, Ms. Hartnig explained. Federal vocational education funds, for example, help pay for school-to-work staff members in her state.

"This [amendment] walls off the vocational education money in an artificial and impractical way," agreed Ellen O'Brien Saunders, the executive director of the workforce training and education coordinating board for Washington state.

Conference Ahead

Mr. Ashcroft's amendment was one of five attached to the workforce bill, which the Senate passed May 5 by a 91-7 vote. The bill, S 1186, is the Senate's version of legislation that would replace the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Applied Technology Act of 1990.

The Perkins Act dealt only with vocational education; the Senate bill also would govern federal job-training and adult education programs.

While the intent of the Ashcroft amendment may not be to cut any vocational education activities, that would be the effect, argued Patricia W. McNeil, the assistant secretary for the office of vocational and adult education in the Department of Education. The Clinton administration, she added, is hoping the amendment will be dropped.

"I fear that we will not be able to carry on some of the very good activities that are going on under the Perkins Act," Ms. McNeil said.

But some officials in the vocational education community say they aren't worried about the amendment.

Tom Henry, the director of the office of school-to-career and college initiatives for New Jersey, said he assumes the amendment will stop states from paying for activities that fall only under the School-to-Work Act, not those that also fall under the Perkins Act.

The main difference between the two laws, Mr. Henry said, is that school-to-work activities are extended to all students under the School-to-Work Act, rather than just to vocational education students, as under the Perkins Act.

The amendment is "confusing," conceded Nancy O'Brien, the director of government relations for the American Vocational Association, because it doesn't clearly spell out the Senate's intent. But she's not yet sounding an alarm to her organization's members, she said, because senators have said they would clarify the language further if necessary.

"We're going on those assurances," Ms. O'Brien said. "They're strong assurances."

Representatives of some conservative groups, meanwhile, said they strongly support Sen. Ashcroft's amendment.

"School-to-work sends off warning bells among conservatives," said Sheila Moloney, the executive director of the Eagle Forum, a Alton, Ill.-based group that follows legislation affecting families. "We think basics of education should be taught first."

A conference committee now will try to resolve the differences between S 1186 and HR 1853, the House version of the bill. Unlike the Senate version, the House bill deals only with vocational education.

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 22

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Senate Passes Bill Governing Vocational Education
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