The largest federal program for high schools—the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program—would get a major makeover under a proposal unveiled by the U.S. Department of Education last week.
The proposal outlines the administration’s vision for reauthorizing the Perkins law, which was funded at $1.14 billion in fiscal 2012. The Obama administration is seeking to ensure the program, last reauthorized in 2006, does a better job of preparing students to join the labor market. The administration also wants to boost collaboration among high school programs, postsecondary institutions, and business partners.
“This is not a time to tinker or just look for change around the margin,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters during a conference call April 19. The program, “must be transformed if it is to live up to its potential.”
One piece of the proposal—which would radically revamp the way the grants are allocated within states—already is setting off alarm bells with advocates for career and technical education, as well as key members of Congress.
Right now, funding for the Career and Technical Education program is distributed within states by a formula. But, under the administration’s proposal, states would set up a competition to distribute the funds. That change might leave some career and technical students out in the cold, said Alisha Hyslop, the assistant director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education in Alexandria, Va.
“In a competitive grant situation, there’s no way you don’t create winners and losers,” Ms. Hyslop said. “Our goal is to make sure all students have access to high-quality [career and technical] programs. … Somebody is going to get left out.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is concerned that the change could create “haves and have-nots” that may worsen achievement gaps in struggling districts, said Eli Zupnick, her spokesman. But overall, Sen. Murray strongly supports the administration’s proposal, he said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, also is a fan of the proposal.
“I want to commend Secretary Duncan for bringing attention to the need for more alignment, collaboration, accountability, and innovation, as well as the need for equity,” he said in a statement.
New Funding Structure
The proposal also seeks to boost collaboration among districts and postsecondary institutions by making them share grants.
Right now, districts and postsecondary institutions get separate funding. The administration instead would fund consortia of districts, postsecondary institutions, and their partners. Partners could include employers, labor organizations, and industry associations, among others.
Jessica Cardichon, the director of federal advocacy at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit organization in Washington that promotes high school transformation, applauded that move. “This could be something that has a positive effect in terms of collaboration, alignment, performance, and accountability across institutions,” she said.
But Ms. Hyslop worried that if just one member of a consortium holds the purse strings, the funds may not make it to the other partners. “We’re not sure the consortia structure is going to be the most effective way” to ensure partnerships, she said.
The proposal also would require a 25 percent private-sector match for grants, which could be filled through actual dollars, or in-kind donations, such as equipment, or training facilities.
The idea is to make “business and industry really feel like they have some skin in the game,” said Brenda Dann-Messier, the assistant secretary for the office of vocational and adult education.
That’s another aspect of the plan that has Ms. Hyslop worried.
“We don’t [only] want businesses that bring the most money to the table” to decide how a state spends its federal career and technical education dollars, she said. Some employers that can’t provide a big match but have lots of job opportunities—such as cash-strapped hospitals—might lose out, she said.
The proposal would also give states a bigger role in deciding what sort of career and technical education programs get funded, by empowering them to pinpoint “high growth” jobs and industries on which to focus Perkins dollars. And it calls for diverting 10 percent of Perkins funds to a new, competitive “innovation” fund to improve career and technical programs at the state and federal levels.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Overhaul Proposed for Career, Tech. Ed. Program