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Should Career-and-Tech Dollars Be Competitive? No Way, Says Congress

Democrats and Republicans on the House education committee came to two bipartisan conclusions at a hearing on the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act today.

The first? Making the $1.1 billion vocational education program—the biggest federal funding stream aimed at high schools—competitive within states is a bad, bad idea.

And the second? The administration should have given lawmakers a heads-up on its plan to take $100 million in U.S. Department of Labor discretionary funds to finance a competitive grant program for high school redesign. The administration had already put a similar proposal forward in its fiscal year 2014 budget request, but had been rebuffed by Congress: Senate Democrats didn't find  money to create the plan in its spending bill. The administration's new plan will not require congressional approval.

Kline said he "shouldn't have been surprised that he was surprised" by the administration's decision to keep the news of the competitive vocational training program mum until early this morning. (Sounds like a possible allusion to some of the under-the-radar action that's been happening at the department lately, including a move to change the waiver-renewal process.)  And Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y. said he would have liked some advance notice, even as he's optimistic about the high school program's potential.

Their concerns aren't so surprising: Even though the competitive career-tech program involves a relatively small pot of money, the administration's proposal essentially an end-run around Congress, which isn't really the most helpful way to kick-off a bipartisan reauthorization.  

Kline made that point clear in his opening remarks, "I am discouraged by this morning's news that President Obama plans to announce a new, national competitive grant program aimed at career education—without any input from Congress. Another program will only further muddle the system at a time when we need to make smart, structural reforms to improve CTE programs under the Perkins Act," he said.

It's also not a surprise that lawmakers were less than enamored of the administration's idea to allow states to decide which of their career-and-technical education programs get federal dollars.

When the administration unveiled the proposal in a blueprint on renewing the law last year, it got an instant thumbs-down from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a congressional leader on CTE issues. Murray found much to like in the rest of the proposal.

Nearly everyone on the committee—from Kline to Democrats such as Reps. Bobby Scott of Virginia and Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, echoed Murray's earlier criticism. They argued the change would make it tough for rural and poor districts to get the grants—which right now are distributed by formula—since they might not have the resources to write winning grant proposals. Advocacy groups, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Association for Career and Technical Education, have made similar arguments. More in this story.  

Brenda Dann-Messier, the assistant secretary in the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, tried to sell the idea to lawmakers, telling them that states could ensure that there's geographical diversity.

It was harder to discern, however, where the panel is heading when it comes to what's arguably the issue at the heart of the CTE reauthorization: How to ensure that career- and technical-education programs aren't a sort of second-tier pathway for students, and ensure that they will actually prepare students for the jobs that are available now and in the future.

One of the witnesses, Stanley Litow, the vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs for IBM, essentially suggested that students shouldn't have to choose between getting ready for college and getting ready for a career. And he said the business community might be able to help states and schools revamp curriculum to meet both sets of demands—it's already happening in fields like computer science, he said.

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., asked Dann-Messier how the department is ensuring that states align their career and technical programs with their standards for college-and-career readiness standards. Dann-Messier said that's something that the department plans to enforce, but didn't go into detail on exactly how.

Two words that only came up once during the entire two hour session: Common Core. And only in the context of how the feds are getting pushback for the administration's role in championing the standards.

"The federal government is prohibited from telling high schools what they ought to teach," Kline said. And yet, he said, every member of the committee has talked to businesses in their district who are looking for workers who have the skills needed to fill vacant positions.  "We have a serious challenge out there," he said.

Dane Linn, the vice president of education and workforce issues at the Business Roundtable, has suggested that the tests being developed by two consortia to align with the common-core standards in English/language arts and math could play a role in determining whether students are actually career-ready. But that idea didn't get any air-time at the hearing.

Other tidbits:

•The administration isn't so taken with the current formula for distributing CTE dollars to states, Dann-Messier said. They think it relies on outdated data, she said, and would like to see it tweaked. (Good luck, administration. Changing federal-funding formulas is often very hard, because someone loses money.)

•It's pretty clear that Kline and other lawmakers want to get back to the committee's traditional modus operandi of bipartisanship after a very blistering and bruising debate over the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Over and over, Kline pointed out potential areas of agreement and even kicked off the hearing saying he hopes that CTE renewal will be a collaborative, cross-aisle process.

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