U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to a community college in the middle of Iowa to announce Thursday what he called a "transformation" of vocational education.
"The Perkins program must be transformed if it is to live up to its potential to prepare every youth and adult to participate in the knowledge-based global marketplace of the 21st century," Duncan told an audience at the Des Moines Area Community College.
The administration's proposal is a blueprint for reauthorizing the Perkins Act, which pays public schools to provide vocational education (known as "career academies"). The new proposal's most drastic changes would increase the quantity of Perkins grants and make them competitive, similar to changes Duncan has made to other parts of the educational spectrum. The administration proposed a new competitive fund of $1 billion to increase the number of career academies by 3,000 — a jump that could serve 500,000 more students.
But with no prospect of congressional hearings on the proposal any time soon — indeed, with no such bill currently in either chamber of Congress — and with the expiration of Perkins a full year away, stakeholders are wondering to what extent these plans are more political than "transformative."
"We're wondering about the timing," said Kimberly Green, director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, a group that lobbies on behalf of career and technical education (CTE) programs. "Since jobs will be a big part of presidential strategy, they want to be able to call attention to how they're proposing to connect an education program to the needs of the economy."
And the timing might be especially helpful during an election year, when President Barack Obama needs all the opportunities he can get to shore up his image on job creation. CTE programs provide students with trade skills, such as plumbing or electrical work — and some have argued that such programs have not received enough government support, thus closing down an alternate route to the middle class for students whose interests are less academic.
"It's part of a campaign strategy to emphasize employment," said Jack Jennings, a former longtime Democratic congressional education staffer. "That's Obama's weak spot."
Obama has also been criticized for placing too much emphasis on college completion, touting the goal of making America the global leader in degree attainment. (This goal led to Rick Santorum famously referring to the president as a "snob.")
"It's a good balancing act for the administration, because they've been accused of having too much focus on college," said Jennings.
To that end, administration officials made sure to note Thursday that Obama has already set aside $2 billion in grants that aim to strengthen community college curricula with "learning real-world business needs," and a proposal to spend $8 billion on a "community college to career fund," though such programs could potentially benefit employers more than trainees.
Nonetheless, workforce scholars say some kind of CTE reform is necessary: Post-secondary outcomes have taken center stage in national debates about education reform. That's because, as administration press materials note, 60 percent of jobs added last year went bachelor's degree recipients.
"What drives me crazy every day is that … we have at least 2 million high-skill, high-wage jobs that we can't fill," Duncan said on a call with reporters. "We don't have a jobs crisis. We have a skills crisis."
Obama's revision of the Perkins Act would allow states to single out "high-growth" jobs and target the type of CTE programs that get funded through the program. Instead of giving school districts and post-secondary institutions discrete allocations of money, the program would fund consortia of businesses, districts and schools. Most drastically, the revised Perkins Act would fund programs on a competitive basis within states and develop "common definitions" by which to hold programs accountable.
Green's CTE lobbying group is already pushing against the changes. "The details worry us," she said. "The competitive approach has the potential effect of really disadvantaging rural areas … that have smaller staffs and no full-time grant writers."
The proposed changes encouraged Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce and contends that the academic bent of American education turns many kids off from school. "We've been losing 30 percent of high school kids every year. By making kids take Algebra II, we force dropout and failure," he says. "Applied learning works best, but our system pushes academic learning, because it's set up for everyone to go to Harvard."
Shortly after Duncan released his talking points, congressional Democrats voiced their support. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement that she "supports the Administration's push to build on the successes of CTE programs," but has "concerns with the funding mechanisms being proposed."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate education committee, released a statement saying he wants "to commend Secretary Duncan for bringing attention to the need for more alignment, collaboration, accountability, and innovation."
Still, no congressman has indicated he or she would sponsor a CTE reform bill along the lines of Obama's proposal. (Green and several Democratic hill aides said they were not aware of any planned hearings.) The administration itself hasn't written a bill, perhaps because it is still convening groups of CTE managers in states to determine the common accountability metrics. A representative for Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House education committee, responded to a query about the Obama blueprint by pointing to a job-training initiative developed in Kline's committee that features much streamlining and consolidation of job training programs.
When asked about the CTE plan's political prospects, though, Duncan was optimistic. "I don't know any elected official at any level … who doesn't want to see their employment rates go up," he said, "regardless of politics or ideology."