Congress has approved an updated version of the nation’s vocational education law, rebuffing White House attempts to kill the program. The move secures federal support for vocational education through 2012. As of press time, President Bush had not signed the bill but was expected to do so.

Known as the Perkins Act, the law steers $1.3 billion a year into career-based courses in high schools and community colleges, a large part of which is used to purchase technology and train students for success in an increasingly competitive global economy. Though the federal commitment represents only a fraction of the money schools spend each year on vocational education, many schools have indicated a dependence on the program.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives voted 399-1 to pass the bill on July 24. The Senate approved the measure July 21, capping more than a year of negotiations.

The dominant theme of the bill–the first such update since 1998–is rigor and results.

It requires states to run career programs that will give students a broad base of academic skills, not just technical ones. In exchange for money, states and school districts must produce more evidence that students are making progress and landing good jobs.

The legislation would require states to come up with model sequences of courses from high school through college. The goal is to give students a clear path of training for work.

Bush plans to sign the bill, White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said.

An estimated 15 million high school and college students take vocational education courses. This figure marks a 60-percent increase in enrollment since 1999, owing in large part to a new crop of coursework that has enlivened traditional voc-ed shops.

Career and technical education is now a vast field, with options such as architectural drawing, biotechnology, landscape design, and computer programming. In addition, traditional trades–such as carpentry and car repair–have grown more sophisticated with advancements in technology. The reauthorized Perkins Act recognizes “that the age of the standard kind of vocational shop classes is over,” said Seth Turner, senior director for public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education.

“Careers that are considered traditionally vocational careers have all become incredibly technical today,” explained Turner. “An example that I like to use is that the average car has more technology than the lunar module did. Today’s auto mechanic is a guy who, 30 or 40 years ago, was at NASA. Cars are incredibly technical; they’re no longer just mechanical parts. There are all these computers, wires, [and] stuff. It’s not just auto mechanics, but health fields–they’re all technical now. We’re very happy to see that the [updated] bill recognizes that.”

The program is a favorite of lawmakers, who keep rejecting the Bush administration’s attempts to scrap it. No high school effort, it is reported, gets more federal aid than vocational education.

“Participation in these programs can mean the difference between a job with no possibility of advancement and a successful career,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

The White House calls the program ineffective.

President Bush wants to shift the money into a new effort of expanded high school testing and help for struggling learners. States could still spend the money on career courses if they wanted. But Congress has never seriously considered the changes that Bush has proposed.

“We’re proud of our commitment to this program,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The bill changes the title from vocational education to “career and technical education”–a nod to teachers who say “voc ed” conjures images of classes from earlier decades.

Agreeing on a name was one of several smaller matters that kept a deal in limbo.

House and Senate negotiators also had to work out differences over state administrative money, mergers of vocational programs, and the best ways to hold schools accountable.


U.S. House of Representatives

White House

U.S. Department of Education