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High School Reform Plan May Cripple College Programs

High School Reform Plan May Cripple College Programs
Bush plan would cut technical and vocational programs to fund high school initiative
By Charles Dervarics

The Bush administration is drawing the ire of leaders across the higher education spectrum by promoting a proposal that funds a new high school improvement initiative at the expense of an existing program used by many postsecondary institutions.

The White House plans for the $1.5 billion High School Reform Initiative would hinge largely on termination of the Carl D. Perkins Act, a long-time federal law that funds career and technical education. But with postsecondary institutions receiving about 40 percent of Perkins dollars, the move, if approved, would shortchange colleges to fund secondary school programs.

As part of the High School Reform Initiative, schools would have to conduct more annual testing of students and extend provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act to the high school level.

The budget plan is “very disappointing,” says Katherine M. Oliver, president of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium. “At a time when the country’s economy demands a well-trained work force, and when the added emphasis on academic performance requires an applied context, a significant reduction in funding just doesn’t make sense.”

The largest Perkins Act program, funded at $1.2 billion, comes as grants to each state. The states can set their own formulas to allocate funds for secondary and postsecondary technical education programs. In arguing for termination, the U.S. Department of Education says the state grant program is “ineffective because the program has produced little or no evidence of improved outcomes for students despite decades of federal investment.”

While K-12 schools could get re-allocated funds under the Bush proposal, postsecondary education would lose all Perkins funding. This is “one of our biggest concerns,” says Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education.
“While secondary programs are a big component, a substantial chunk of funding goes to postsecondary institutions,” she says.

Within postsecondary education, the Perkins Act also supports many college initiatives that benefit students of color or special populations, particularly at two-year institutions.

At Austin Community College in Texas, where enrollment is 40 percent minority, Perkins provides valuable student support services, says Thomas N. Applegate, the college’s executive dean of customized training. Among other activities, Perkins dollars support child care for students who are single parents or displaced homemakers. Perkins funding also supports career guidance, equipment purchases and staff development, Applegate says.

“Anytime you reduce that funding, it will have a negative impact on our student population,” he says. Overall, the college receives about $500,000 annually through Perkins. “Employers also would be negatively affected,” he says, since the college uses the federal funds to pay for activities that link students with specific job-training opportunities.

“If high schools need reform, we should not do it by cutting our workforce-development system,” Applegate says.

Under the Bush administration’s plan, states would have to develop reading and math assessments for students in grades 10 through 12. Current law requires only one set of comprehensive assessments. The Education Department argues that these assessments would help schools develop strategies to meet the needs of at-risk youth.

But Hyslop says the administration could promote high school reforms without eliminating Perkins. Schools could use these funds to help students develop career plans and better integrate academic and technical instruction. She adds that the No Child Left Behind Act also should require academic teachers to use real-world problem solving.

High school funds for Perkins could help “ensure that students have a personalized environment in which to learn,” Hyslop says. “The career and technical education community supports changes in the American high school to ensure that students are adequately trained for the 21st century.”

The administration’s plan is likely to face significant opposition in Congress, which last year rejected another administration plan to terminate Perkins. The proposals are similar, Hyslop says, and while Congress protected the program last year, there is some concern that budget pressures may be a greater issue this year.

“The wild card is that concern over the budget deficit is getting stronger. [Nonetheless], support for Perkins is very high,” she says.

Perkins is not the only education program that would be eliminated to help fund the new high school initiative. Upward Bound, Talent Search and GEAR UP college access and awareness programs also would be zeroed out. Coupled with the Perkins cut, the proposed reductions would total $2 billion, which is more than the cost of the new high school initiative.

The House and Senate have been debating budget issues throughout the month. For the current fiscal year, Congress voted to cut Perkins funding by 1 percent to help meet federal budget targets.

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