The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act has been living dangerously in recent years. President Bush has proposed slashing or wiping out funds for the federal government's major career and technical education program in each of his last several budget proposals, though members of Congress, acting in a bipartisan manner increasingly uncommon these days, have ultimately protected it. And Congress itself has repeatedly put off renewing the law that authorizes the program, which it last approved in 1998.
Given the program's seemingly tenuous existence, it is not surprising that officials at community colleges, who are higher education’s primary beneficiaries of Perkins funds, are first and foremost pleased and relieved that Congress enacted (and President Bush apparently plans to sign) the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006,  which will extend the Perkins program's ability to operate through 2012. The measure passed both houses of Congress by overwhelming majorities.
"We're very happy," said Janice Friedel, director of the Iowa Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation. “It’s been a hard, long struggle, but the votes on the legislation clearly indicate that career and technical education is important for our country and our citizens.”
Like many community college officials, Friedel said she is just starting to get a clear sense of exactly how the Perkins legislation will change how two-year institutions operate within the program. In most ways, they agreed, the new law reinforces trends that are already under way in the career and technical education world, such as greatly increased collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions. (The American Association of Community Colleges and others helped fight off some changes that two-year institutions opposed, notably one that would have eliminated the separate stream of funds for the Tech Prep Program,  which is part of the Perkins program.)
One of the most visible changes that was made is a largely symbolic one: a new name for the Perkins program. Going forward, the words “vocational and technical” in its name will be replaced by “career and technical” – a nod to the fact that most states have changed the names of their own worker development programs and agencies in similar fashion, to reflect the fact that schools and colleges are now “focused on broad career clusters or paths rather than a specific job a student is training for,” says Alisha Hyslop, assistant director of public policy for the Association of Career and Technical Education, which represents instructors, administrators and staff members at schools and colleges.
Or, to put it another way: “To a lot of people, voc-ed still means ‘shop class,’ “ says Keith Bird, chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. “This terminology helps change that way of thinking.”
More substantively, the Perkins renewal will prod high schools and community colleges, in conjunction with their states, to work together on “programs of study” that clearly lead students on specific career paths from secondary through postsecondary education and into the work force. Every institution that receives funds under the bill, for example, must put in place at least one of the various “programs of study” (which are designed to capture high-need fields in their states).
Most community colleges are already doing this, Hyslop and Bird agree. “Anything that helps link secondary and postsecondary education elements is critical, and is consistent with what’s already happening in Kentucky and other places,” Bird says. “We’re trying to develop a continuum of learning to which any person -- a high school graduate, an incumbent worker, an adult student -- can come into this system of career pathways with all the learning they have achieved not being wasted.”
Probably the most significant change two-year colleges will face under the revised Perkins program is a new set of accountability measures. Under existing law, states have to report the overall performance of their schools and community colleges on a range of performance measures – academic measures such as grade point average and degree attainment, and measures of technical skills such as scores on licensure examinations.
The Perkins program revisions will both require individual institutions to report their own performance indicators and, for the first time, give states the power to withhold funds from institutions that fall significantly short of their goals. An individual community college could either accept the performance targets that its state career education agency has negotiated with the federal government, or choose to negotiate its own rate with the state body. If the institution falls short of 90 percent of its performance goal three years in a row, the state could withhold a portion of its Perkins funds.
“A lot of states are looking forward to being able to create a little more motivation for local programs that may not be making as much progress as others,” says Hyslop of the career education association.
While accountability measures almost always create a bit of nervousness on the part of college officials – especially when they could conceivably result in a loss of funds – Bird and others say they are up for the challenge.
“This is aimed other thing at ensuring student achievement and making sure we’re offering programs that provide people with a livable wage, and we couldn’t agree more,“ says Bird. “It’s about creating a culture of evidence in community colleges, which we believe in because of the nature of the business we’re in.”