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Clinton Builds School-to-Work Highway

His voc-ed package uses employer support, but finding funds is a challenge

PRESIDENT Clinton's ringing pledge to invest in the American people moved a little closer to fulfillment this week with the signing of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. But the money to do all that the measure promises could be hard to come by.

The legislation is directed at the three-quarters of American high school students who do not go on to a four-year college degree. It will attempt to tie high school vocational offerings more closely to the evolving needs of employers while strengthening the academic skills required of non-college-prep students.

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Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Education Secretary Richard Riley teamed up as administration point men for the bill. Mr. Reich calls ``School-to-Work'' a ``key element'' in the president's domestic investment plan. ``The act is designed to create a system of apprenticeships that give young people a set of foundation skills, so that they can continuously learn on the job,'' Mr. Reich says.

The classroom work of 11th and 12th grades will be supplemented by actual workplace learning, he says. Businesses involved in the program will have mentors at the work site to make sure students understand the practical applications of math, science, and communications skills.

States and localities will compete for federal grants under the act. Winning proposals, Reich says, will show strong business-community involvement in shaping the curriculum and a ``tight linkage'' between work-based and school-based learning. Winners will also have to extend their programs a year or two beyond high school into community colleges or technical schools, he adds.

The goal is ``to encourage a more systematic approach to vocational education,'' says Richard Kazis, vice-president of Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit research organization that has been involved in shaping the legislation.

Business having a say

In the past, Mr. Kazis says, vocational education has too often ``been driven more by the schools and teachers - the voc-ed establishment - rather than the local labor market.'' The new act continues a push at the federal level to move vocational training away from ``narrow preparation for a trade,'' Kazis says, and toward a ``broader definition of vocational education'' that leaves more options open to students.

US industry strongly supports the School-to-Work act, but ``to us, it's just a beginning,'' says Sally O'Dowd, director of education policy and programs for the National Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), which represents the views of manufacturers and technical educators.

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Despite Secretary Reich's emphasis on business involvement in implementing the act, Ms. O'Dowd says her organization has ``anecdotal evidence'' that the grant applications in some states are being drawn up by education departments behind closed doors, without the input of industry leaders. That could trip up the whole effort, she says. ``Employers know what they need better than any policy wonk or educator.''

O'Dowd is also concerned about the funding that School-to-Work is likely to get. The Act authorizes $300 million a year for the next five years. But a yawning gap often separates initial authorization from what is later appropriated and spent.

``We argued for $6 billion between now and 1999, but we're obviously not going to get that,'' says O'Dowd. She says that legislative analysts she confers with estimate the 1995 appropriation for the act is likely to be only $50-60 million.

Like any other measure on the administration's list of priorities, School-to-Work will soon encounter ``intense pulling and tugging'' during the mid-summer appropriations process, says a staffer with the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over the act.

Scramble for funds

He says it's much too early to predict what part of the appropriations pie a particular measure will get. He cautions, however, that lawmakers will fight not only to fund their favorite new programs, but to restore funding to old programs recently cut, such as winter-heating assistance for low-income families.

Secretary Reich is relatively optimistic about funding. School-to-Work is ``a highly leveraged program'' that will generate added private, state, and local money for every federal dollar spent, he says. ``It's an excellent investment for the taxpayers,'' he says, ``a relatively small budget outlay, but a major building block for the Clinton system of lifelong learning.''

The School-to-Work act is not quite as innovative as its framers might like to think, says Ray Ryan, executive director of the Center on Education and Training for Employment at Ohio State University. ``We've been doing a lot of that for a number of years,'' he says, referring to apprenticeships and work experience for students. ``I'd like to see the whole divided idea of having two separate tracks - academic and vocational - just kind of disappear,'' says Mr. Ryan. Vocational education ``shouldn't be looked at as a dead-end thing, but an empowering experience.'' The hands-on, career-related methods of vocational education can be applied widely to make any subject matter more compelling, in his view. ``What's needed is not a workplace focus all the time so much as a relevance focus.''

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