Vocational Education at the Center of Federal School Reform Dispute

Published May 1, 2005

In his proposed 2006 budget, President George W. Bush seeks to re-route $1.3 billion, currently earmarked for the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Act, to his $1.5 billion plan to expand mandatory No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing into the nation’s high schools. The White House contends many vocational programs teach watered-down academics and do not prepare youngsters for the demands of the modern workplace.

Supporters of voc-ed disagree, saying improvements in vocational, technical, and career education are at the cutting edge of school reform.

Voc-Ed Reauthorized

Among the proponents of that view are many Republicans in the House of Representatives who usually can be counted on to support Bush’s education initiatives. Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE) is the chief sponsor of a bill to reauthorize the Perkins program. At this writing, the House Education Committee had unanimously approved the Perkins reauthorization, and the full Senate passed its version 99-0.

Perkins backers in the House say the revamped program would continue to move away from the School to Work model pushed during the Clinton administration. Increased emphasis would be placed on student achievement rather than narrow specialization.

Job Training Bill Passed

The House of Representatives passed a reauthorization of the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, which is now named the Job Training Improvement Act. The bill’s sponsors say it would streamline the country’s job training system and thereby help job seekers get the adult education and guidance they need to find work.

A new pilot program would allow state and local workforce boards to offer “personal reemployment accounts” of up to $3,000 to help the neediest of those in the ranks of the unemployed return to work quickly.

Faith-Based Providers OK’d

On a bipartisan basis, the House rejected an amendment that would have denied faith-based job training service providers the ability to take religion into account in their hiring practices.

The issue prompted Bush to assert in a speech that “one of the key reasons why many faith-based groups are so effective is a commitment to serve that is grounded in the shared values and religious identity of their volunteers and employees. In other words, effectiveness happens because people who share a faith show up to help a particular organization based on that faith to succeed.”

His Democratic predecessor agreed: President Bill Clinton signed several bills allowing faith-based groups to consider potential employees’ religion, even when receiving federal funds.

ESL Policy Changing

While NCLB has drawn criticism from the political left and right, its impact on reforming the education of children with limited English skills now seems beyond dispute.

Before NCLB, the federal government dispensed millions of dollars in annual grants to purveyors of bilingual education, which consigned immigrant children to classes taught in their native languages, with acquisition of English made a very low priority.

A biennial evaluation recently presented to Congress shows that the program (formerly Title VII, the Bilingual Education Act, now renamed Title III of NCLB) has been dramatically transformed to stress teaching English promptly. States now receive formula grants according to their numbers of Limited English Proficient (LEP) children, with stipulations that they develop standards and assessments for teaching those students English.

Although school districts may still use bilingual programs, Title III requires that any language instruction and teacher training be “scientifically based and effective.” The goal is that LEP students master English so they can achieve as well in reading and math as other subgroups of students under NCLB testing requirements.

Title III requires “demonstrated improvements in the English proficiency of limited English proficient children each fiscal year” and “adequate yearly progress for limited English proficient children, including immigrant children and youth.”

Notification, Options Helpful

According to the evaluation released by the U.S. Department of Education, 4 million LEP children–about 80 percent of all LEP children nationwide–are being served by the Title III program. Among 45 states that provided proficiency targets and performance data, 41 have met targets for student mastery of English skills.

“No Child Left Behind has had a profound impact on the lives of these children and their families,” said Kathleen Leos, a spokesperson for the Office of English Language Acquisition in the U.S. Department of Education.

“Parents are getting more information about the progress of their children,” she said, “and the law requires that they be notified in a language they understand. They also have more options as to what program is best for their child. Recent studies have shown that most immigrant parents want their children to learn English, and this report shows us that these dreams are, in fact, being fulfilled.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.