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Law & Courts

Congress Renews Perkins ‘Career Education’ Law

By Sean Cavanagh — July 31, 2006 5 min read
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Congress has approved a long-awaited renewal of the federal vocational education law, providing a new name for the career-oriented classes the law supports but keeping the core structure of the politically popular program largely intact.

The bipartisan legislation was approved by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate on July 26, and the House of Representatives approved it after midnight on July 29 by a vote of 399-1. The measure would extend the federal vocational program, currently known as the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, through 2012. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., cast the lone House vote against the measure.

The law governs the flow of about $1.3 billion annually in federal funds to states and school districts for work-related classes, programs, equipment, and training. The legislation approved by Congress would change the law’s references to “vocational” education—a term many supporters of the program believe is outdated and derogatory—to “career and technical” education.

“Improving and strengthening the academic focus of the Perkins Act is part of a much larger effort to ensure that today’s students will be ready for tomorrow’s reality, whether it is in college or the workforce,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the chief sponsor of the legislation, said on the floor of the Senate on July 26. Rep. Enzi is the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The legislation was approved despite criticism over the past year from the White House, which proposed killing funding for the program and argued that it did not place strong enough academic demands on students. But after the House’s final vote on the measure over the weekend, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings released a statement crediting lawmakers for passing the legislation, which she said would bring the program in closer alignment with the No Child Left Behind Act.

The Associated Press quoted a White House spokeswoman as saying President Bush would sign the legislation.

The measure came to the floors of the House and Senate after lawmakers from both chambers met in a conference committee in mid-July to resolve differences between two different versions of the reauthorization legislation.

Keeping Tech Prep

The newly approved legislation, renamed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, would require vocational programs to follow academic reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act more closely. States and school districts would be required to report vocational students’ scores on state high school assessments, as well as their graduation rates, under the No Child Left Behind law. Districts that failed to meet academic goals for their career and technical programs would have to establish improvement plans. If local programs continued to fail to meet goals, states might be able to withhold funds from them, under the Perkins legislation.

House lawmakers had originally proposed having the “Tech Prep” program, a $100 million-a-year undertaking that supports partnerships in workforce training between high schools and colleges, be folded within a larger portion of the Perkins program, called “state grants.” A recent federal study questioned the effectiveness of Tech Prep programs; others say the usefulness of those partnerships fades over time, and the money can be better spent elsewhere.

The Senate, however, rejected that move. As a result, the new legislation retains Tech Prep as a separate program, but would give the states the freedom to combine Tech Prep money with federal grants to the states. If states choose to maintain separate Tech Prep programs, those partnerships between high schools and colleges would face tougher academic reporting requirements, under the legislation.

Federal vocational spending accounts for only about 10 percent of the total money devoted to career and technical education nationwide, with state and local governments contributing the majority, according to recent estimates. But proponents of those programs say the flow of money from Washington is critical to states and schools.

Support among lawmakers for the Perkins program was evident on Capitol Hill last week, where several House and Senate lawmakers credited the federal program with providing valuable help to vocational high schools and colleges in their home districts.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said on July 27 that the legislation indicates that Congress “soundly rejects” the Bush administration’s proposal to eliminate the program’s funding. And both Democrats and Republicans argued that the program was necessary to increase the nation’s ability to compete with foreign nations academically and economically—a continuous theme in Congress this year, as lawmakers consider strategies to improve U.S. mathematics and science education.

“To me, this is one of the most important pieces of legislation that will come out of this session,” said Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, in talking about the legislation on the floor of the House last week. He is the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal spending on education.

“[T]his legislation gives an opportunity and expands the horizon for many students who would otherwise not get that chance,” Rep. Regula said.

The Bush administration proposed zeroing out funding for the Perkins legislation in its last two budget proposals. In addition, Secretary Spellings last year sent letters to lawmakers voicing her objections to earlier versions of the reauthorization bills, saying they were not academically demanding enough—only to see both chambers approve those measures by overwhelming margins shortly afterward.

Yet in her statement issued over the weekend, after Congress’ final passage of the legislation, Ms. Spellings said Congress “deserves credit for making some needed reforms” to the vocational education law.

“For the first time, career and technical education programs will be held accountable for continuous improvement in performance, measured by the academic proficiency of [vocational] students,” the secretary said.

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