The future of the federal vocational education program, which helps deliver job training each year to thousands of aspiring computer technicians, cooks, engineers, and others, could be on the verge of a major shift. In its latest spending plan for career and technical education, the Bush administration offers not just a budget document, but a far-reaching blueprint for change.
President Bush’s budget proposal for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1, portrays the federal vocational program as in need of an ambitious makeover, and depicts the high school initiatives the Department of Education pays for as doing too little to challenge students academically, or to prepare them for good jobs.
The new spending plan, released Feb. 3, calls for replacing the current system with an arrangement focused squarely on improving teenagers’ basic academic skills, and grooming them for a two- or four-year college education, if they want it.
But the proposed overhaul has drawn an angry retort from many vocational education advocates, who say the administration’s plan would essentially gut career and technical programs by shifting their pool of federal money to other programs, such as those related to complying with provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
A joint statement released by two of the nation’s largest vocational education organizations on Feb. 3 warned that in its drive to raise student academic achievement, the Bush administration and its proposal would “decimate” career and technical education. They said the administration was selling short the accomplishments of K-12 and college vocational programs.
“The system itself would change so dramatically, it’s hard to tell how this [plan] would improve it,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, the director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, based in Washington.
The overall federal contribution to vocational education would be cut from $1.3 billion to $1 billion, creating a new system of funding K-12 and community college programs based on “Secondary and Technical Education State Grants.” Currently, the federal government contributes less than 10 percent of the total funding for the nation’s vocational education programs, Ms. Harris-Aikens and others said, with state and local governments covering the rest. Still, she and others say, the proposed federal changes would have a broad impact.
Under the proposal, states would be asked to award competitive grants to school districts and community colleges—money that today is allocated through a non-competitive formula system. The goal, the administration explains in its budget, is to require states and districts to focus more on academic preparation in high school, and make sure students can make the transition from K-12 to college, and then from college to the job market. Many details of the plan are still taking shape, officials say.
Job Training and Title I
The proposed change generating the most heat would give states the option to transfer vocational education money to support activities under Title I, the federal program devoted to improving education for needy students. States are using Title I funding to comply with provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. Building on the principles of that sweeping statute is central to the new vocational education proposal, Education Department officials say in budget documents.
The administration argues that all high schools have an obligation to give students preparation for a two- or four-year college education—because today’s economy demands it.
“This proposal would make closer connections between progress at the high school level and technical education at the college level,” said Carol D’Amico, the department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “If we’re going to focus on the best preparation for young people ... most high-paying jobs will require some kind of postsecondary education.”
This year, Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, the primary law and funding mechanism for the federal government’s vocational education programs. Ms. D’Amico said the budget proposal was developed with the upcoming reauthorization process in mind. Much of the new proposal, she added, was built on principles set out during the last federal revision of the law, five years ago.
Late last year, some vocational advocates publicly voiced worries that the Bush administration would eliminate career and technical funding entirely, or shift the federal program to the Department of Labor.
Those fears have not played out. Nonetheless, the proposed changes worry administrators at many two- year institutions, said Jim Hermes, the senior legislative associate for the American Association of Community Colleges. The potential to divert funds to Title I, and the overall focus on K-12 accountability, create the possibility that little money would be left over for two-year schools, he said.
“Ninety percent of it is focusing on the secondary level,” Mr. Hermes said of the Bush proposal. “We want to see a good, strong system for postsecondary, too.”
Others worry that poor or smaller institutions at the precollegiate and college levels, with little know-how in jockeying for competitive grants, would lose out under the proposal.
“The time it takes to apply for that grant would take away from someone else’s time,” said William R. Randall, the superintendent of the Lorain County Joint Vocational School District, a career and technical education system based in Oberlin, Ohio.
Mr. Randall was confident that his district, which serves 1,050 full-time high school students, in addition to providing classes for students from surrounding districts and adults, could do well in the new process. Others would not, he predicted. “There will be districts that don’t have the staff to meet this requirement,” he said.
Echoes of 1998
But even some of the strongest critics of Mr. Bush’s vocational education budget say the overall goal of making the same academic demands of all high school students—whether in vocational programs or not—is worthwhile.
“We want every student to get through high school, and be prepared for college,” said Alisha Dixon, the legislative assistant for the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va., which represents more than 38,000 teachers, staff members, and others in K-12 and community colleges.
Still, Ms. Dixon fears many states would be all too eager to shift big chunks of vocational education money into Title I efforts. Those states, she said, are under pressure to meet the deadlines of the No Child Left Behind Act, and they are using Title I cash to comply the act’s requirements.
“If they’re forced to choose ... they’re going to do what they have to do,” Ms. Dixon said.
But others, like Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, a research and advocacy organization in Washington, said the administration’s proposal reflected a well-established shift toward encouraging high schools to produce vocational students with strong academic skills. Many of those goals were spelled out during the 1998 vocational education reauthorization process; the administration’s plan simply would create a much stronger mechanism for bringing about those changes, she argued.
“This is not brand-new,” said Ms. Haycock, who said she supported much of the administration’s proposal. “Kids are looking at the same [economic shifts] we are, and are saying to themselves, ‘I need to get into college.’ ”
And Assistant Secretary D’Amico said allowing states to use vocational funding for Title I would give them flexibility to address the most pressing needs of school districts requiring broad, basic improvements.
“States will do whatever is in the best interest” of their students, Ms. D’Amico predicted, speaking about the Title I funding. “The truth is, if a student can’t read, that student can’t participate in vocational education, or any postsecondary education program.”