DEARBORN, Mich. - Some educators say a Bush administration proposal could doom vocational training programs.

DEARBORN, Mich. - In the middle of a room crowded with old air conditioners and a few refrigerators that look like they were built during the Eisenhower administration, 19-year-old Brian Brooks is trying to weld.

He holds a long metal box under a glowing blue flame and attaches a handle to it. Brooks stops, turns off the flame and looks over his work. Satisfied, he takes the box over to instructor John Wolnowsky for approval.

Brooks' project is part of a sheet-metal layout and fabrication class at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., one of several HVAC-related programs offered at the suburban Detroit institution.

Such classes are held daily at high schools and community colleges across the U.S., but some educators say a Bush administration proposal could doom vocational training programs.

As part of its 2004 budget, the U.S. Department of Education has suggested funneling money currently spent by the federal government on traditional vocational education into new programs that focus on improving academic achievement at the high school level.

Administration officials want to replace the $1.3 billion Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act, the federal program that has supplied money for technical training classes for 20 years, with a $1 billion competitive-grant plan administered by state lawmakers.

Under the proposal, states would also have the option of using the money to fund the No Child Left Behind law of 2001, which requires them to support extra academic efforts in economically distressed school districts.

A change in focus

Education Department officials say the changes are needed to bring an achievement-oriented focus back to vocational training and improve academically underperforming schools. An assessment of vocational programs by the department last year questioned their value, saying many students do not graduate from such classes with marketable skills.

Not surprisingly, a number of those who teach such classes disagree. Officials from two groups, the Association for Career and Technical Education, and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, recently issued a joint statement saying the president's plan would "decimate" vocational training programs.

Several organizations involved in HVAC education are also lining up to fight the proposal. William Allred, executive director of HVAC Excellence, a nonprofit group that establishes industry-training standards, said the change in funding "would have a tremendous impact on HVAC" instruction, since it requires major investments in machinery and equipment.

"We seem to have seen a shift in priorities in education," Allred said. "Post-secondary technical education has taken a back burner."

Allred plans to meet with members of Congress this fall to lobby for the continuation of the Perkins Act, which is scheduled to expire at the end of this fiscal year.

'A less-demanding alternative'

Bush administration officials say much of the current legislation that funds vocational teaching - including Perkins - is based on outmoded beliefs and many classes do not offer the skills needed in today's economy. In a March speech before Congress, Carol D'Amico, then-assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said oftentimes students who have difficultly with regular schoolwork are put into vocational classes that do not prepare them for a high wage-earning career.

"Too frequently, vocational training is offered not as a supplement to a quality academic education, but as a less-demanding alternative," D'Amico said. "High school becomes a rough shove into poverty, rather than a pathway to self-sufficiency."

In calling for the renewed focus on academics, Department of Education officials said the nation's schools are not producing enough bachelor's degree-holders to meet future demand. They predict the nation's economy would need 18 million new graduates with a bachelor's by 2012. But U.S. colleges and universities are expected to only turn out about 12 million, officials said.

Allred disagrees. The worker shortage is not among the college-educated population, he said.

"We have a glut of B.S. (degrees) on the market," he said, adding that many entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor's degree have starting salaries less than those in vocational fields.

Some instructors agree

Still, some HVAC instructors say the Education Department has a point. Mike Bergen of Philadelphia's Air Handing Services Inc. evaluates sheet metal and HVAC classes for the National Center for Construction Education and Research. The Gainesville, Fla.-based nonprofit group establishes curriculum standards. Bergen said he often does not like what he finds.

"They continue to dumb-down the curriculum," he said. "It's clear to me that there is not a shared vision, a shared idea of what these young people are supposed to be able to know or be able to do as they exit the secondary-school program."

Others involved in industry training say they are sensitive to such criticism, but argue allowing states to divert funding "simply won't help," said Ed Dooley, spokesman for the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, a group of HVACR manufacturers involved in several industry-education programs.

"We're solidly in favor of reforms that improve the system," Dooley said. "(But) It's the wrong approach, at the wrong time, to take away funding for skilled-worker training."

Many involved in technical education say President George W. Bush's proposal could not come at a worse time for U.S. trade schools and community colleges. Most technical education programs receive the bulk of their funding at the state level, and the nation's recession has depleted many state coffers. Legislators are looking to save money wherever they can, and most have already reduced school subsidies.

The loss of Perkins grants could be a breaking point, some school officials say.

"If we don't get any Perkins money, we will be shutting programs," said Jo-Ann Terry, vice president and dean of career education at Henry Ford Community College. "It's the money we use to buy virtually all equipment."

Perkins funds contributed more than $1 million to the school's $16.1 million 2003 vocational education budget, Terry said.

"In a tight economy, you have to look at what's expensive," she said. <