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Congress Defies Bush Budget, Approves Extension of Perkins Act

Congress Defies Bush Budget, Approves Extension of Perkins Act
Renewal a major victory for community colleges.
By Charles Dervarics

Despite steady criticism from the Bush administration, the nation’s career and technical education programs — many of them based at community colleges — have won a major endorsement from the U.S. Congress that will keep government-funded services largely intact.
House and Senate renewal of the Carl D. Perkins Act received kudos from community colleges, as well as other institutions that receive funds for short- and long-term educational programs. But with policy-makers seeking more educational accountability, postsecondary institutions also will face new requirements to evaluate the success of their programs.

Funded at $1.4 billion, the Perkins Act provides federal dollars to improve both K-12 and higher education. The bulk of funds, $1.2 billion, are grants to states, which then flow to school districts and postsecondary institutions. Community colleges are the primary recipients at the postsecondary level, where the grants support associate degree and occupational credential programs.

Yet Perkins’ future was in doubt after repeated White House calls to terminate the program — a plan that ultimately fell on deaf ears on Capitol Hill.

“I am certain that people were actually starting to think this day would never come,” says Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., referring to the fits and starts that accompanied the legislation. “But here we are.”

After hashing out final details of a bill that had languished for more than a year, the House voted 399-1 for approval. The Senate vote was unanimous. “There is broad bipartisan support for Perkins in this Congress,” says Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education.

In keeping with ongoing federal debates about higher education, accountability is a major theme throughout the bill, for both K-12 and higher education. At the high school level, lawmakers will tie program effectiveness in part to performance on high-stakes exams under the No Child Left Behind Act. That link is likely to signal more cooperation between academic and career/technical education within high schools, Hyslop says.

At the community college level, the federal government would measure success based on the share of students who receive an industry-recognized skill credential and who have a positive placement after school. According to Hyslop, positive placement could include enrollment at a four-year college, successful entry into the job market or military or acceptance into an apprenticeship program.

Another provision of the bill would replace the term “vocational education” with “career and technical education” throughout the Perkins Act. In addition, schools can use federal dollars to remove barriers between traditional four-year baccalaureate programs and shorter career or technical programs.

Within tech-prep, the government would evaluate programs based on job placement rates in a related employment field, attainment of an industry-recognized credential and completion of a job program within required timeframes.

Faced with nearly unanimous support from Congress, Bush signed the bill, albeit with little fanfare. The White House consistently has called for the elimination of the program. Last winter, the administration proposed transferring Perkins’ $1.4 billion budget to a new high school reform initiative.

Perkins advocates say the career and technical education law is a reform initiative, since it can provide critical links between academics and real-world jobs.

“While the president has chosen to put forward a proposal to dismantle this critical program, we saw an opportunity to make high school matter for many young people, offer college students pathways into productive employment and new hope for displaced homemakers and workers re-entering the work force,” says Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., senior Democrat on the House education panel.

Even though the White House had proposed Perkins for elimination, Bush’s signature on the final bill drew praise from Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“This bill will benefit students, workers, businesses, local communities and our economy overall,” he says. “Participation in these programs can mean the difference between jobs with no possibility of advancement and a successful career.”

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