In the prevailing climate of recent Congresses, dominated by the push for belt tightening and the shift of power to the states, college officials and other beneficiaries of federal funds tend to shudder when lawmakers use the words "streamline" or "consolidate" to refer to key programs. Too often, the officials fear, the words "eliminate" or "reduce" will follow at some later date.
So while community college officials were generally pleased Wednesday as members of the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved legislation to renew federal vocational education programs -- from which the institutions get hundreds of millions of dollars each year -- they rued the fact that the the measure would eliminate the separate budget line for the Tech-Prep Program.
That program, on which the government is spending $106 million this fiscal year, gives students a technical education during two years of high school and two years of community college. Under the measure approved Wednesday, funds for Tech-Prep would be folded into the basic state grants section of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998.
The Republican lawmakers who wrote the bill sought to address the concerns of Tech-Prep supporters by including language directing Congressional appropriators (who actually decide how much to spend on various programs each year) to keep funds for Tech-Prep at their current level throughout the six-year life of the bill. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who heads the education panel, said that the legislation "guarantees that tech prep will continue to be funded at the same level" and that "I don't think we're hurting Tech-Prep in any way, shape or form."
But in the words of Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass), who sponsored an amendment that would have retained a separate stream of funds for Tech-Prep: "When you consolidate, you tend to lose focus, you tend to lose accountability, and in the long term you tend to lose money." The panel rejected his amendment along party lines, by a vote of 20 to 18.
Lobbyists for vocational education took heart from the fact that the House panel's counterpart, the Senate Commitee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, unanimously approved a competing bill Wednesday, S. 250, that would sustain a discrete pool of funds for Tech-Prep. Assuming those bills move through their respective chambers without major changes, it would be up to a panel of House and Senate lawmakers to negotiate a compromise.
That difference aside, the bills approved by the House and Senate panels were similar and much to the liking of college officials. That is most true because by their underlying purpose -- authorizing the continued existence of federal job training programs, and the $1.3 billion in funds that they received in 2005 -- the measures implicitly reject President Bush's 2006 budget proposal to eliminate the Perkins program. The administration's budget plan would pour the Perkins funds into the president's plan to extend the No Child Left Behind law to high schools.
Democrats on the House panel sought to make that rejection explicit (and, it seemed, to put the panel's Republicans on the spot) by proposing a "sense of Congress" resolution that condemned the president's proposal. "We need to make a statement that we support these programs, and that we show our opposition to administration efforts to eliminate them," said Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.), who sponsored the resolution.
In a gentle jibe at Democrats, Boehner responded that "we do two things in Washington: We do serious public policy, and we do serious politics, and sometimes those lines get blurred." Compared to the "meaningless words" of the resolution, he said, the committee's unanimous passage of the reauthorization legislation Wednesday is a "very strong statement" of bipartisan support for the Perkins program. "I am completely confident that this program will continue to be funded," Boehner added.