Voc. Ed. Law Reauthorization Gears Up in Congress

By Sean Cavanagh — May 05, 2004 4 min read
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With a revision of the main federal vocational education law in their sights, members of a House subcommittee used a hearing last week to highlight several local programs that they said offer a successful blend of academic rigor and career training.

Members of the House Education and the Workforce’s education reform subcommittee heard testimony from leaders of K-12 and college programs in several states. The link between academic preparation for college and workforce skills is expected to be a prime focus as Congress reauthorizes the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998, which is set to expire this year.

Several lawmakers voiced support for making vocational programs more academically challenging, but only if they still offered students the skills sought by local employers.

“When a vocational education program is working well, students don’t have to choose between academics” and career skills, Rep. Lynn C. Woolsey, a California Democrat, said at the April 27 hearing. “It is not a one-size-fits-all world.”

That message emerged repeatedly in the testimony of speakers such as Sandra Walls-Culotta, the principal of Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown, Del. In the mid- 1980s, she said, her school was plagued by poor test scores, students with few academic skills, and courses that did not match the needs of local industry.

In the early 1990s, her school switched from a part-time program to a full-time, comprehensive technical school serving grades 9-12. Today, student schedules allow for a mix of college-preparatory courses and career training.

“Sussex Technical has been transformed,” Ms. Walls-Culotta told the subcommittee, “from an area, shared-time vocational school with declining student enrollment and low academic achievement to a restructured, clustered high school that offers a challenging, integrated curriculum.”

Roberta White, the president of the Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development, a K-12 vocational program in Cincinnati, told the panel that her school aligns its courses with Ohio state standards, private-industry demands, and college-admission requirements.

“If you have a program that is no longer serving the needs of the community, you need to divest from that program,” Ms. White told the subcommittee.

Congress has not yet begun to debate specific legislation to reauthorize the vocational education law. House and Senate education committee members have spent much of their time on school issues in recent months considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Republicans on the House education committee, said last week that no firm timetable had been set for the crafting of vocational education bills. A GOP spokeswoman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee said hearings on the topic could begin this summer.

Details to Come

The Bush administration is putting a greater emphasis on infusing vocational classes with academic rigor. In its proposed budget for fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1, the administration had issued a vocational education plan that called for slashing Perkins funding from roughly $1.3 billion to $1 billion. The proposed cut was rejected by Congress, though it has re-emerged in the administration’s fiscal 2005 budget proposal.

In its 2004 budget document, the administration also proposed allowing states to channel federal vocational funding to support Title I programs, and the creation of a more competitive process for awarding federal vocational money.

The administration has not released its overall proposal for reauthorizing the Perkins Act. Susan Sclafani, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, told a group of state directors of career and technical education gathered in Washington on April 23 that the administration was “a week and-a-half” away from providing details of its plan.

She announced, however, that the idea of letting states redirect federal vocational aid into Title I programs would not be part of the administration’s blueprint.

“That’s gone,” said Ms. Sclafani, who drew applause from the state officials who feared that the measure would deprive them of funding.

At the April 27 hearing, several House members said they supported raising academic standards in vocational education but were reluctant to overhaul the program’s core mission.

“The main fear is that somehow Perkins is going away,” said Rep. Thomas W. Osborne, R- Neb. “We’ll do whatever we can to preserve it.”

Career-oriented classes are crucial to keeping students at risk of academic failure interested in school, other lawmakers argued. Academic standards should not be raised so high that teenagers lose that incentive to learn.

“Many students don’t learn academics well in the abstract,” said Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. With career-oriented classes, he added, “they start to see why this makes sense in their lives.”


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