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A Promising Perkins Reauthorization

By and / 7.7.2017

On June 22nd, the House unanimously passed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 2353). Referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions the following Monday, the bill is a reauthorization of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. If passed, it would make headway in creating local programs that address the widening “skills gap” and the threat of increasing automation. While President Trump’s proposed budget would cut $168 million from career and technical education (CTE) funding, this bill essential level-funds the programs.

For the last decade, education reformers have made a strong push for schools to prepare students for college—reinforcing the national narrative that “everyone must go to college.” This national push has ignored kids for whom college is not the right choice, many of whom could earn a middle-class income with the skills provided by a two-year apprenticeship, training program, or community college degree.

CTE programs are designed to create opportunity for these students, while reducing the gap between employers’ desired skillsets and prospective employees’ skills. Today 40 percent of global employers report talent shortages in technical fields.

The bill would require work-based learning for all state and local programs, so students developed the actual skills needed by local employers. It also would require that CTE programs have partnerships with local stakeholders, such as community leaders and small businesses, to make certain students are prepared for in-demand jobs in their regions. CTE programs in different regions would be able to tailor their offerings to ensure that they produced employees suited for jobs that actually existed in their area.

The bill would simplify the state application process and local plan requirements, which should lead to more money being spent on CTE and less on bureaucratic paperwork. It would increase from 10 to 15 percent the amount of federal funds states could set aside for rural areas and areas with high concentrations of CTE students, and from 1 to 2 percent the amount for juvenile justice programs and correctional facilities. Representation in the development of state plans would be expanded to include advocates for homeless children and youth, at-risk youth, and the children of active duty Armed Forces members.

Overall, this bill is a moderate proposal that would not fundamentally change the Perkins law. Instead, it would change the methods of implementing and assessing CTE programs, within the framework of the original law. For instance, it would tweak the requirements for performance indicators, in an effort to improve accountability and transparency. States would also have to publish annual performance results, making shortcomings and successes available to students, taxpayers, and leaders.

The bill would move more control over Perkins funding from the federal level to the state level and from the states to local governments, to allow more flexibility in the creation of programs. It would also give states the authority to set their own performance targets for each of the bill’s core indicators. The Secretary of Education would retain the authority to disapprove of a state’s Perkins plan based on the performance targets that the state sets, but CTE programs would now be evaluated by an independent advisory panel appointed by The Institute for Education Sciences, acting on behalf of the Department of Education. The Secretary could no longer withhold funds from a state that did not meet certain performance targets, if the state developed an improvement plan that met the guidelines set forth under the bill.

The reauthorization would fund CTE for six years, starting with $1.133 billion for fiscal year 2018—only $8 million more than the amount for 2018 under the previous reauthorization. The figure would gradually increase until it reached $1.213 billion in 2023. But if inflation averaged 2 percent a year, that seemingly 9 percent increase would actually be a loss of nearly 5 percent.

While the reauthorization of Perkins is a step in the right direction, Congress should make a more significant investment in those young Americans who choose not to attend a four-year college. Failure to do so is one more sign that this Republican Congress cares not a whit about reducing inequality.