The Senate education committee last week unanimously approved a bill to reauthorize the main federal vocational education law, but its prospects for final passage remain uncertain.
Several key differences remain between the House and Senate bills for renewing the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which is set to expire this year.
“Given the hang-ups we’ve had with other bills in similar circumstances, it is difficult to predict” whether work on the bill will be finished this year, said Gayle Osterberg, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Measures to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Head Start program, and the Higher Education Act have also languished in the current Congress, although the IDEA bill made progress last week. (“IDEA Reauthorization Gets Boost as House, Senate Plan Discussions,” this issue.)
“This legislation will help provide more benefits to people who need jobs or want better jobs by creating better pathways for academic and vocational skills enhancement,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., a co-sponsor of the bill.
The Senate version of the vocational education bill does not include some controversial proposals put forward by President Bush earlier this year. In May, the president proposed a series of overhauls to the vocational program, including the replacement of two existing streams of federal funding with a single program for distributing the money, to be called the Secondary and Technical Education Excellence Program. (“Bush Plan Calls for More Rigor in Vocational Education,” June 9, 2004.)
Advocacy groups worried that the result would be a cut to the $1.3 billion program, said Christin M. Driscoll, the senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, in Alexandria, Va. The Senate bill would keep the two current sources of federal vocational funding, state grants and Tech Prep, separate.
“By and large the committee chose to keep the structural integrity of Perkins intact,” Ms. Driscoll said. “The president’s proposal would have amounted to significant changes in the program, and we’re pleased that those in Congress ... listened to the education community, which said, ‘This is a program that works.’”
However, the House version of the bill, which is awaiting a floor vote after being approved by the House Education and the Workforce Committee on July 21, would merge the Tech Prep and state grants, Ms. Driscoll said.
The Senate version of the bill emphasizes stronger academic and technical skills for students. It would require states to support local programs developing “career pathways” designed to improve graduation rates and lead students from secondary schools to postsecondary education and training. It would also require that businesses be consulted in the drafting of state and local plans.
The bill also calls for increased accountability. It emphasizes the importance of testing students in math and reading, core academic subjects required to be tested by the No Child Left Behind Act, to make sure they’re held to the same standards that other students must meet.
The Senate plan would allow states to withhold funds if local programs did not improve after a period of intervention.
A Change in Wording
It also emphasizes the importance of a strong state role in vocational education. It would keep the 15 percent allocation of funding that states are allowed to keep for administrative and other costs and remove some strictures on how that money must be spent.
The Senate bill would continue the current law’s mandate that 85 percent of federal vocational education money be distributed to local programs. The House version would let states keep no more than 12 percent of the federal funds for state-level costs, funneling more money to the local level.
For the technical education community, one of the most important aspects of the Senate bill is a wording change, Ms. Driscoll said.
Language throughout the bill has been changed from “vocational education” to “career and technical education.” Some consider the term “vocational education” outdated. The House version of the bill does not reflect this change in language.
“That kind of language reflects what’s happening in the field, with career and technical education moving forward in many areas and keeping up with current technical and training standards,” Ms. Driscoll said. “We’re constantly updating and adding new technology.”