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Bipartisan Workforce Bill Would Help Students Leaving Special Education

States and school districts would be charged with thinking much more critically about how to help students who have been in special education transition into the workforce and post-secondary education, under a bipartisan, bicameral bill to renew the federal Workforce Investment Act.

The provision, which was championed by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime advocate for students with disabilities, would essentially take the idea of "inclusion," which has become a hallmark of K-12 settings, and bring it into the workforce. (As most special educators know, "inclusion" requires students in special education to be in the least-restrictive environment possible, learning alongside their general education peers.)

The end goal of the change in WIA: to ensure that students transitioning out of special education programs (that's students ages 16 to 21) end up in competitive jobs, working alongside people who don't necessarily have disabilities, and get paid at least minimum wage. Right now, students with disabilities who leave K-12 schools sometimes wind up working in segregated facilities and performing menial tasks, like stuffing coupons into envelopes, and don't make minimum wage, a Democratic Senate aide said.

And the bill also continues federal investments in a handful of programs that serve K-12 students, including youths who have dropped out of school and are seeking workforce skills. It would keep in place:

•WIA Youth Activities, which was financed at $824 million in fiscal year 2012 and is aimed at helping disadvantaged youths get access to workforce training;

•YouthBuild, which can help low-income youths as young as 16 earn a GED, while getting job-training skills; 

•JobCorps, another program that helps those 16 and up earn a GED and get training experience.

All three of those programs were slated for elimination or consolidation under a version of WIA that was approved on a largely partisan vote by the U.S. House of Representatives last year.

There is, however, at least one program that's aimed at serving K-12 kids that got scrapped: Youth Opportunity grants. That program hasn't been funded in years, congressional aides say.  

Noteably, WIA isn't really a K-12 focused bill. It generally deals with workforce training issues, including adult education. A one-page summary of the legislation here.

The bill is part of an interesting political trend. Remember Congress' strategy to tackle smaller, more-targeted education bills where it might be easier to find bipartisan agreement before venturing onto tougher issues, such renewing the No Child Left Behind Act? It seems to be helping to whittle down the legislative logjam.

So far we've seen a House-passed research bill and charter bill, and a Senate-approved child-care bill. And now we have this WIA bill, which lawmakers in both chambers are hoping to fast-track.

The legislation has the support of pretty much every lawmaker that has anything to say about higher education and workforce issues, including: Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., George Miller, D-Calif., and Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, as well as Sens. Harkin, Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

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