Senate Jump-Starts Process for New Career-Education Law

Bipartisan agreement to reauthorize Perkins Career and Technical Education law would give more authority to states to determine progress of federal skills training program.

June 26, 2018

Senate lawmakers look to be on the verge of a bipartisan agreement to update the law governing $1 billion in annual federal spending on career and technical education in the U.S. — much of it at community and technical colleges.

Members of the education committee plan to today mark up a bill to reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education law just over a year after corresponding legislation sailed through the House.

In recent weeks, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, White House adviser Ivanka Trump and business leadersjoined a chorus of voices urging senators to prioritize the legislation after it stalled for months due to partisan disagreements.

The agreement finalized by GOP and Democratic negotiators over the weekend would allow states to largely set their own goals for career and technical education, a departure from current law.

The bill was negotiated between the offices of Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat. The offices of Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and the committee chairman, and ranking member Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, played heavy support roles. A committee aide said the legislation would appropriately reduce the role of the education secretary while still increasing expectations that states will hold themselves accountable for preparing students for good jobs.

Much of the disagreement in prolonged negotiations hinged on restrictions on secretarial authority in determining how states use federal funds to meet career-training goals. The Senate agreement would allow states to establish their own goals for career ed programs without seeking approval from the Education Department. The secretary, however, could step in if states don’t make “meaningful progress” toward meeting their own goals.

That language finds more of a middle ground than the House version of Perkins authorization. The House bill would block the education secretary from withholding grant funding to states even when they failed to meet their own benchmarks, although they would be required to submit an improvement plan.

In the Senate agreement, the secretary could withhold funding if a state fails to meet 90 percent of performance objectives for two years in a row.

The bill would also lay out “core indicators” for those students who concentrate in career and technical education, such as graduation rates or the percentage of students who continue to either postsecondary education or advanced skills training.

The House bill, dubbed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, simplifies the application process for states and local education providers seeking federal funds for skills training. And it pushes for employers to have a bigger role in shaping the career-education goals for programs at the local level. Like the proposed Senate agreement, the House legislation would also remove the existing requirement that states get program goals approved by the secretary.

Kermit Kaleba, director of federal policy at the National Skills Coalition, said that the proposed bill tracked closely with House legislation already passed last year.

“That’s a wise choice given the strong bipartisan support for the House bill,” he said.

And while the coalition believes that on balance the Senate deal goes in the right direction, both that bill and the corresponding House legislation are less ambitious than the group would have liked. Overall spending for career education grants would get a slight increase but would still be lower than historical funding levels for Perkins.

“At the end of the day, you signal priorities in part through the spending levels you set,” Kaleba said.

Both bills do, however, strengthen the role of industry in setting priorities for career education and give states more flexibility in setting objectives for the program.

The Senate bill notably backs away from performance outcome metrics in the House bill. One of those performance benchmarks in the House bill would measure postsecondary programs on the median earnings of graduates.

Advance CTE, which advocates for high-quality career and technical education programs throughout the country, said in a statement that it appreciates the focus of the Senate committee on crafting bipartisan legislation.

“We look forward to continue working with the Senate to improve the bill and meet these goals to address the needs of both the CTE system and the students it serves, as well as the growing need for skilled workers across the entire country,” the statement said.

The details of the agreement didn’t receive entirely glowing reviews. In a statement opposing the proposed bill, the American Association of School Superintendents said the legislation is “a relic of the No Child Left Behind era” and criticized “unrealistic and prescriptive” accountability measures.

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