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NCLB Outrages

Vocational Education Getting Left Behind?

Ohanian Comment: For those who missed the link, part of the money for expanding NCLB testing in high school will come from scrapping federal support of vocational education programs.

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration says many vocational education programs don't work and federal money would be better spent on the president's high school reform plan.

But education experts say recent improvements in vocational and career education now are leading the high school reform movement. They say eliminating the $1.3 billion in federal vocational education aid, as the administration proposes, would undercut these improvements just as they are getting started.

Critics say many school districts are training students in outmoded skills, such as auto repair techniques no longer used in the workplace. And many programs require such a low level of academic achievement that students are not prepared for today's jobs.

In its budget proposal last month, the White House zeroed out what is commonly known as the Perkins program and moved that money to Bush's plan to expand the "No Child Left Behind" law into the high schools. Virginia's share of the 2005 Vocational Education State Grants was $26,432,971.

The Education Department insists that the president's plan doesn't kill federal assistance for vocational education, it just allows states flexibility to decide where to spend the money.

"If a local school has a great vocational education program and wants to keep funding it, this plan allows them to do that," said C. Todd Jones, the Education Department's associate deputy secretary for the budget. "But if they want to focus on bringing in a new reading program for ninth-graders, then they can do that."

So far that argument is not playing well among some key Republican legislators who are moving to reauthorize the Perkins program even as the administration pro- poses its elimination.

And the loser may be Bush's expansion of No Child Left Behind.

"To bring No Child Left Behind into high schools with standards and assessments is going to cost money," said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee. "But the administration says we're going to use the same pot of money to pay for vocational education and to pay for No Child Left Behind. That seems inconsistent."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who served as President George H.W. Bush's education secretary and is now chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development, said he too supports reauthorization of the Perkins program. Perhaps the president's reform plan should wait, he said.

"The governors are doing the most interesting work on high schools," Alexander said. "We would be well advised to digest what we learned about No Child Left Behind in the earlier grades and hear from the governors on their ideas on high schools. Then we can see how [the federal government can] fit in."

About half of all high school students and about a third of college students are heavily involved in vocational programs, according to the Education Department's 2004 national assessment of vocational education.

The federal government's share of the overall cost is only about 5 percent. But that money pays for some of the training, planning and technology upgrades that many schools are using to bring vocational and technical training into the 21st century.

"It's the Perkins dollars that are driving the largest high school reform in America," said Gene Bottoms, director of the High Schools that Work project of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Bottoms is working with 1,000 high schools in 31 states to upgrade vocational education programs so that they offer challenging academic classes as well as practical career training.

Vocational education has been the province of students who did not do well academically, said Ross Wiener, policy director of the Education Trust, an independent think tank aimed at improving grade school education.

But today's jobs, such as auto mechanics and computer technicians, need high reading and math skills, he said. Studies show that vocational education is effective in keeping students from dropping out if it combines a rigorous academic program with a technical program, he said.

"You pull away the federal investment in career and technical education, you pull out the foundation," Bottoms said. "It sends a message it is no longer important to the nation."

Gil Klein reports from the Washington bureau of Media General News Service. Contact him at gklein@mediageneral.com

— Gil Klein
Richmond Times-Dispatch


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