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Why You Should Care About the Perkins Career and Technical Education Reauthorization

Earlier this week, the House held a hearing on strengthening career and technical education—meaning they may be gearing up to reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, Perkins loans? I have those.”

Actually, this is a different federal education program.

The Perkins Act provides almost $1.3 billion annually to the states to improve programming for career and technical education and to increase achievement for students who want to enter technical fields–think electricians, plumbers, mechanics, medical assistants, nurses, and vet techs. The law is intended to encourage high schools, community colleges and vocational schools work together to prepare students for high-demand jobs that require well-trained employees. The law was last reauthorized in 2006, and the House rushed through a reauthorization at the end of last year, which the Senate declined to take up.

One important goal of Perkins is increasing women’s entry into higher-paying jobs that are nontraditional to women. For example, women are overrepresented in the cosmetology but underrepresented in higher-paying fields of manufacturing, construction, and information technology. Perkins requires states to keep track of this data, remove barriers that exist for girls and women in these fields, and actively work on increasing women’s and girls’ access to nontraditional fields.

Tuesday’s hearing highlighted the need for schools to better advise students on CTE fields and eliminate misconceptions about technical careers. One witness claimed school counselors offer skewed choices to steer all students into college or to make students feel like a technical degree is beneath a four-year degree. Although I agree that not all students want careers that require four-year degrees, we cannot ignore which students have historically been steered into CTE programs.  For example, students of color were steered into vocational schools because of stereotypes about their academic ability and assumptions that they were not smart enough to succeed in universities. On the other hand, women and girls weren’t steered into vocational schools at all based on gender bias about the type of work women should do. (It’s as if Rosie the Riveter never happened after men returned from WWII!) So yes, let’s advise students about all the choices they have and let’s actively challenge implicit racial and gender bias behind the advice that may be currently given.

Another important aspect of Perkins—just as any other federal education law—is accountability. That is, Congress doles out the dollars in exchange for better results—states need to show they’re continually improving and that CTE is not their forgotten stepchild. Fair bargain, right? States do this by submitting plans to the Secretary of Education that set targets for improvement and how they plan to achieve those targets.

Under current law, the Secretary holds a carrot and a stick when reviewing and approving these plans. You get the funds if you show us your work. Are you working to get girls in your welding classes? How’s your concurrent enrollment program working out for low-income students and single parents? If last year was a bad year in achievement, what are you going to do next year?

The Secretary negotiates and works with states on these plans to ensure states are doing what the Act requires to receive the funding. And one of the Secretary’s tools is the ability to sanction schools by withholding some or all funds if states refused to do right by these students. The Secretary has never had to impose any sanctions, but this “stick” has been effective in holding states accountable.

The bill the House quickly passed last Congress would’ve gutted the Secretary’s ability to use the carrot with the stick. It took away the Secretary’s ability to negotiate targets for achievement, and the ability to sanction when states continually fail students.  States would still submit plans but it would be a perfunctory act before getting the funds.

If Congress takes away the Secretary’s most effective tools in holding states accountable, all of the goals about quality CTE education, changing the narrative on these fields, and equitable access for women, single-parents, and others are irrelevant!

 

 

No punishment for missing targets? Of course states will be all:

 

 

Since that bill died in the Senate, a new bill needs to be reintroduced this year. Hopefully, any reintroduction will preserve all the tools the Secretary currently has to hold states accountable.

To do otherwise is playing with fire. The promise of civil rights in education is tied to the Secretary’s authority to make sure states do right by all students. So, we’ll be paying attention to this year’s reintroduction of Perkins. And if the bill attempts to gut the Secretary’s authority again?

 

It's time for change, and we must act now. Time's up.