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Improve Vocational Ed

VOCATIONAL education long has been an option for many teenagers, but it too often has carried a stigma: Only the ``dumb ones'' choose that route.

The School-to-Work Opportunities Act, signed recently by President Clinton, will not instantly erase that stigma. But it should help make a start. The philosophy embodied in the act - stronger academic elements in vocational curricula and thorough involvement of business in vocational learning - is clearly on the right track.

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That track should merge with the education-reform mainline that the country has been striving to travel for the past decade.

The reform movement cannot afford to leave out the huge portion of American students who will be best served by a program of instruction that emphasizes marketable, hands-on skills, while instilling the fundamentals of math, science, and English.

Education Secretary Richard Riley has stressed that the School-to-Work approach and the Goals 2000 plan, a federal-state compact that lays out national educational objectives, ``go hand in hand.''

That means vocational education should no longer be seen as education for the students who can't cut it in regular high school.

Many communities around the country have superb vocational programs that put students in touch with the latest technology while making sure they know how to communicate and compute. The academics may be ``applied'' - related to career goals - but they are rigorous.

The best vocational schools have an admirable record of sending youths on to post-secondary work, whether at community colleges, technical schools, or universities.

Paid time on the job is also a facet of vocational education. Co-op jobs or apprenticeships are a major attraction for the millions of kids who view work, rather than college, as their goal after high school. True, that means less classroom time, but the trade-off is invaluable experience and greatly enhanced employability.

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The School-to-Work Opportunities Act authorizes $300 million a year through 1999. In the current budget climate, that money could fall under the ax during Congress's appropriations process this summer.

Every effort should be made to save at least a significant portion of those funds. To borrow a bit of the administration's rhetoric, extending the reach of high-quality vocational education is indeed a good way to invest in America.

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