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About 20,000 public institutions in the United States have some kind of vocational-education courses. Of all American high school students, 97 percent take at least one vocational course during high school, according to the American Vocational Association in Alexandria, Va. Last month, the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act increased the authorization for federal funding to these programs by more than 50 percent.

Effective July 1, 1991, the new law authorizes $1.6 billion in federal support for fiscal 1991.

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By changing the mechanism for the distribution of federal dollars, the new law intends to give more support to districts with the largest number of economically disadvantaged or handicapped students, according to the American Vocational Association.

The legislation also aims to make the vocational-education system more responsive to the needs of students, while emphasizing improved performance standards and business partnerships.

In the past, many vocational schools throughout the United States have not applied for available federal funding because they found it too difficult, according to Betsy Brand, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education for the US Department of Education. Many schools that did apply and receive funding weren't able to spend it all because the law was so restrictive and cumbersome, she says.

``We have examples of really excellent programs throughout the United States,'' Ms. Brand says, ``and we know that it can be done right ... It was time to take the system as a whole and move it forward.''

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