After more than a year of inactivity, Congress appears close to hammering out its revisions to the main federal vocational education law, which governs the flow of more than $1 billion a year to career-oriented programs in schools.
The House and the Senate are expected to appoint members to a conference committee soon in an attempt to resolve differences between the bills approved in the two chambers last year by overwhelming margins.
Those measures would reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998. Both bills would keep the core of the program intact, despite criticism by the White House and others who say it is not academically rigorous enough, and that federal money would be better spent elsewhere.
The lead sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said lawmakers are satisfied with the overall thrust of the existing Perkins program and see it as an important option for helping struggling students.
“These bills sharpen up the educational expectations somewhat,” Rep. Castle said in a recent interview. Lawmakers “are genuinely impressed by what they see in the voc-ed program,” he said. “You see students who might otherwise drop out … take an interest in school.”
The federal government currently provides $1.3 billion to states and school districts under the Perkins program for the development of career-oriented courses and curricula, purchases of technology, and other purposes. The vast majority of that money goes for what is known as the basic-grant program, which supports a broad range of career-related functions.
The second piece of the program, called Tech Prep, provides about $100 million per year for state and local efforts to foster partnerships between high schools and postsecondary institutions, typically community colleges. An estimated 1,000 such partnerships exist nationwide.
Judging ‘Tech Prep’
The House bill, unlike the Senate version, would eliminate the separate funding stream for Tech Prep and merge it with the state-grant program. That change is opposed by some advocates for vocational education, who fear it would diminish Tech Prep’s funding and influence over time.
But critics say Tech Prep has done little to make high school vocational courses more academically challenging. The National Assessment of Vocational Education, or NAVE, an independent, congressionally chartered report released in 2004, said Tech Prep “has not lived up to its promise of creating rigorous programs of study.”
While some Tech Prep programs are strong, “a lot of them are not very good and ought to go away,” said Susan K. Sclafani, a former assistant secretary for vocational and adult education in the Department of Education in the current Bush administration.
The effectiveness of many school-to-college partnerships diminishes over time, added Ms. Sclafani, who is now the managing director of the Chartwell Education Group LLC, a consulting company with offices in Washington and New York City. States should be given the flexibility either to continue funding Tech Prep or use the federal money in other ways, she argued.
Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of a Washington-based association of state vocational education directors, agreed that some Tech Prep programs have struggled, but she also argued that the results were better than what showed up on the recent NAVE study.
“The numbers, on their face, don’t look very good,” said Ms. Green, of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. “[But] the environment has changed pretty dramatically over the past five or six years.”
The Senate bill would also change the language throughout the Perkins Act from “vocational” education—a term some supporters of those programs say is outdated—to “career and technical” education, which they say suggests preparation for work in a broader range of fields.
Both chambers’ measures would add new provisions to the law aimed at increasing the oversight placed on money that flows from the federal government to states and then to school districts. Under current law, states must negotiate with the federal Education Department to develop measures of the performance of their vocational programs, in areas such as their success in helping students improve academically, achieve a college education, or find a job.
But the 2004 NAVE report found that state requirements for vocational programs were inconsistent and unreliable.
“Every state has picked benchmarks they can easily make,” Ms. Sclafani said. “It doesn’t lead to improvements in the program.”
The House and Senate bills both would newly require local vocational education programs to meet state academic benchmarks, or risk losing federal funding. That change would have a positive impact, by giving states the right to demand more of local programs, Ms. Sclafani said. But for the Perkins law to work effectively, states have to set high academic benchmarks on their own—even if the federal government is limited in its ability to force them to do so, she said.
President Bush called for eliminating federal vocational funding in his proposed fiscal 2006 budget, an idea rejected by Congress. The administration has made the same proposal again for the fiscal 2007 budget, but a House appropriations subcommittee last month recommended funding the Perkins program at the full $1.3 billion.
The Senate passed its bill by 99-0 in March of last year, and the House adopted its proposal on a 416-9 vote two months later.
Rep. Castle said he expected congressional leaders to begin conference discussions sometime this month.
A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Congress Getting Back to Work on Vocational Ed. Law