Call to Halt School-to-Work Spending

Published January 1, 2000

WASHINGTON–Since the 104th Congress passed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994, the federal government has dispensed a total of $2 billion in implementation grants to the 50 states. The STW act requires states to form business partnerships intended to reshape education policy to fit the needs of economic and workforce development.

By law, STW is supposed to “sunset” on October 1, 2001, although the $5.4 billion omnibus Workforce Investment Act of 1998 will carry some of the STW concepts forward. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley has ruled states may continue to spend federal STW funds beyond that date until their money is exhausted. President Clinton wants to put another $110 million into STW during fiscal year 2000.

Heritage Foundation scholar D. Mark Wilson, a specialist in job-training issues, has a different idea: end the School-to-Work program. Now. Apply the savings toward helping the President and Congress keep their pledge of reducing discretionary spending in order to stay below spending caps agreed upon in 1997.

School-to-Work, concludes Wilson in a new Heritage Foundation study, “Time to End the Troubled School-to-Work Program,” just isn’t working well enough to justify spending another penny on the program. Although it was set up as an integral part of education reform, with the intent of ensuring that youngsters leave public schools with marketable skills, Wilson finds that STW “really is just another redundant federal program of unknown effectiveness that masks the failure of other programs and does not address the root causes of declining educational achievement.”

While proponents of STW recognized the failures of U.S. public schools, says Wilson, they erred in funneling tax money into a redundant effort that clearly doesn’t remedy the fundamental problem: poor academic achievement of high school students.

Since 1980, Washington has put enormous sums into programs similar to STW–almost $20 billion for vocational education, $4 billion for R&D, and $22 billion for miscellaneous “school improvement” programs. If those efforts had worked, America’s high school graduates would not have a school-to-work transition problem.

Nor has Germany’s STW-style system performed much better: Youth unemployment there was 10 percent in 1997, almost matching the U.S.’ 11.3 percent for the same age group.

There have been few rigorous studies of STW’s effectiveness, but the research that is available shows mixed results. Mathematica Policy Research, in a national STW evaluation, found that efforts to raise academic standards are occurring independently of STW. Mathematica found little evidence that workplace activities arranged by business partnerships had academic content, and noted disturbingly that students face a trade-off between electives with career content and using that time for more traditional academic pursuits. A 1996 High Schools that Work assessment found that males who were earning credit for work-based learning had lower achievement in reading, math, and science.

The National STW Office points to programs in Boston and Philadelphia as proof that School-to-Work is working. Wilson concedes those local programs may be getting positive results, but asks: At what cost? Students are gaining placement in entry-level jobs in the local economy, but they are skipping liberal arts coursework that could help them amass “a stock of intellectual capital that will improve and enrich their lives.”

The Heritage scholar also cited flaws in STW that concern many grassroots school-reform activists: its bypassing of state and local elected officials; its promotion of questionable teaching methods such as “contextual” and student-directed learning; its application to all students as opposed to just those vocationally inclined; its destructive impact on liberal arts education; and its resemblance to federal industrial planning of the kind that failed in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Va. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Heritage Foundation study, “Time to End the Troubled School-to-Work Program,” by D. Mark Wilson, is available from The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002, phone: 202/546-4400. The study is available on the Internet at