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Statement of Michael B. Enzi, Chairman

Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and PensionsSenate Consideration of the Conference Report to Accompany S. 250, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006

July 26, 2006

Mr. President, I rise today in support of the conference report to accompany S. 250, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act of 2006.

This legislation reflects a lengthy bipartisan effort to strengthen and improve federal programs designed to support career and technical education. I am very pleased to have worked with my friend and colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy, from introduction of the bill in the Senate through today’s consideration of the conference report.

This legislation was reported favorably by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last Spring by a unanimous vote. The following day it passed the Senate on a vote of 99-0. I am encouraged by the broad support for this legislation and I am pleased to be able to recommend passage of this conference report.

This legislation is important for three reasons. The first reason is the added emphasis on academic achievement. I commend the President and the governors for raising the issue of high school reform, and I believe this legislation is an important part of that process. Improving and strengthening the academic focus of the Perkins Act is part of a much larger effort to ensure that today’s students will be ready for tomorrow’s reality, whether it is in college or the workplace.

In 1998, when Congress last reauthorized the Perkins program, additional emphasis on student academic achievement was incorporated into the bill. That emphasis was critical, and the results have been demonstrated in the program. More Perkins students are performing better on national reading and math assessments than ever before. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, released earlier this year, pointed out that career and technical education students perform better than their peers in both reading and math comprehension.

Another recent study of Arizona career and technical education students showed that students in career and technical training courses were more likely to meet State math proficiency levels than students not enrolled in technical training courses. That’s good, because today’s jobs are requiring stronger academic preparation than ever before, especially in math and science.

We are also facing a significant problem in terms of today’s students completing high school and earning a secondary education degree. A significant amount of research, many college instructors, and employers agree that far too many high school graduates are not prepared for college-level classes and many more do not have the skills to advance beyond entry level jobs.

Only 68% of the students entering the ninth grade four years ago are expected to graduate this year. For minority students, this number hovers around 50%. In addition, we continue to experience an overall drop out rate of 11% per year.

The Perkins Act emphasizes high school completion by making academic courses more relevant. According to the National Assessment of Vocational Education, now two years old, career and technical education students are three times more likely to apply academic skills to job related tasks than students in academic courses.

The Perkins program can help address the "wasted senior year" by helping to improve student academic achievement. It does that by linking learning to relevant applications and tasks. Students that are excited about learning will always do better, and a great way to get students excited about learning is to show them how they will use the skills they’re learning in real life.

For many students, understanding how they will use the skills they learn can mean the difference between completing a high school degree and dropping out. For others, it means greater investment in their studies than they might otherwise have. Making learning relevant is one of the best ways to ensure students stay interested in their coursework, while also preparing them for college and the workforce.

In the bill we are now considering, we have made academic achievement one of several core indicators of performance for programs receiving funds from this act. As States are elevating their expectations for students under No Child Left Behind, we anticipate that career and technical education students will benefit from those same high expectations. We believe that career and technical education programs should be able to take credit for helping students improve their academic achievement in core subject areas, like reading, math, and science.

This legislation also emphasizes the connection to postsecondary education. Many of today’s high school students are entering college behind the curve before they even start. Almost a third of all college students are taking some remedial education courses before graduating. We need to make sure that more high school students are receiving the instruction they need before they leave high school in order to be successful in college.

The impact of the need for remedial academic instruction has dramatic consequences. As many as three in four students requiring remedial reading instruction will not complete a postsecondary degree program. Over sixty percent of students requiring remedial math education will not complete a postsecondary degree.

The Perkins program is in a unique position to help prevent the need for additional remedial education at the postsecondary level. Because the program provides funds for both secondary and postsecondary schools, programs are more coordinated, and students have broader exposure to postsecondary education before leaving high school. A number of programs enabling students to earn concurrent credits for high school and college are springing up within the Perkins program, helping students prepare for college and reduce their time to graduation from a postsecondary degree certificate or degree program.

In Casper, Wyoming, right now, the community college and the school district are working on plans to create a hybrid career and technical education center, which will help students earn credit toward a college degree, learn relevant job skills, and meet challenging state academic standards, all through a single sequence of courses. This legislation encourages more schools to begin innovative programs like the one being developed in Casper.

The second reason this legislation is important is because it will help ensure we are preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce. We are in the midst of a skills revolution. It is estimated that today’s students leaving high school or college will have fourteen different careers in their lifetimes. It is also estimated that the top ten jobs ten years from now haven’t been invented yet. The question that faces all of us, put simply, is "got skills?"

We must equip our workers with the skills the technology-driven economy demands. We need to prepare our students for tomorrow’s economy in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Nations such as China and India are rapidly catching up to our institutions in terms of quality, and they have a much larger student body from which to draw. The only way we can compete in the changing economy is to graduate students with the highest quality of academic and technical skills.

Earlier this month on the Senate floor we discussed the need for skills training and its impact on wages. I made a speech to the effect that the problem we are facing is one of minimum skills – not minimum wages. The effect may be low wages, but the cause is low skills. We need to address those workers who have few, if any, of the skills they need to compete for a better job and command higher wages. We need to start thinking in terms of skills, the kinds of skills that will help students support themselves and their families in the future.

Research shows that high school drop-outs have an unemployment rate two times higher than high school graduates, and three times higher than college graduates. Over time, the earning differential between high school and college graduates has increased as well. In 1980, college graduates earned fifty percent more during their lifetime than high school graduates. Today this differential has increased to 100 percent and continues to expand.

The programs supported by the Perkins Act helps students learn and develop the skills they need to compete in the workforce. In the bill before us, we’ve emphasized the need to prepare students for placement in high skill, high wage, or high demand occupations. These are the types of jobs that will ensure a stronger future for students and will help them become self-sufficient.

Eighty percent of the jobs created over the next ten years will require some postsecondary education. However, the majority of those jobs will require less than a four year degree. This is a critical issue, and we need to start now to meet the needs of the future workforce. I believe that a stronger, more effective Perkins program is an important way to address this issue.

By 2010 we face a projected skilled worker shortage of 5.3 million workers. That’s 5.3 million American jobs that can’t be filled because our workers don’t have the right skills. That is why career and technical education funds are so critical to the supply of skilled labor in this country. These are precisely the types of careers for which the Perkins program is preparing students. Career and technical programs in this country are preparing students with the skills to succeed in health care, information technology, trade, manufacturing, and a host of other careers.

One of the most critical improvements we’ve made to the Perkins program in this bill is to strengthen the connection of career and technical education programs to the needs of businesses. If we are going to help fill the growing need for skilled workers, we need to ensure Perkins programs are coordinating their instruction with current practices in industry and the needs of the local workforce.

Thousands of examples are available of schools connecting with businesses to help develop the right curriculum for available high skill, high wage jobs. At a roundtable I chaired earlier this year on high school redesign issues, several of the participants described programs that linked academic programs at the high school or community college with the needs of the employers in the area. One such example was a program that prepared students to work in a nearby nuclear energy plant. The area high school offered classes so students in the area could begin the technical training to get a job at the nuclear power plant, earning more than $40,000 a year to start.

That’s the type of relevant instruction that we need to encourage and that we are encouraging through this conference report. I expect that the students performing well in their nuclear power management and safety class are also performing well on State math and science assessments.

The final reason that this legislation is important is because it provides a foundation for the redesign of federal education policy. We need to structure federal education policies that provide students and adult learners have access to lifelong education opportunities. In this twenty-first century economy, learning never ends, and school is never out.

The Perkins Act is one part of a "three-legged stool" of federal education and training programs, all of which we will have considered during this Congress. The other two key pieces of this approach are the Workforce Investment Act, and the Higher Education Act. This is the first of those three bills to make it through conference, but I hope we will quickly follow with the others.

If we are going to stay competitive, federal education programs need to help support seamless transitions from education to the workforce, throughout life, from preschool through postsecondary education and beyond. The conference report we are considering takes the first step in that direction by emphasizing the connection between academic and technical education and the workforce and postsecondary education. The Workforce Investment Act and the Higher Education Act will be the next critical steps in ensuring that American students are prepared for today and tomorrow’s careers, many which haven’t been invented yet.

Today’s students are more and more likely to return to school throughout their lives for additional training. Some estimates suggest that as many as seventy-five percent of today’s workers will need additional training just to stay current with their jobs. The modern college student reflects this trend perfectly. Today’s average college student is likely to be older than twenty-four, independent, and more likely to be female. They are also likely to have transferred institutions at least once in their postsecondary career.

That snapshot reflects the reality that today’s college students are there for training and technical skills acquisition more than anything else. Postsecondary education is one of the fastest means to advancement in today’s economy. With a postsecondary education, workers are more likely to keep their jobs and take advantage of opportunities to grow and advance in the workforce, or transition to another occupation as the workforce changes.

Federal policy needs to reflect the twenty-first century reality: we are in the midst of a jobs revolution. We are going to experience dramatic changes in the workforce over the next ten to fifteen years, and we need to start now if we are going to adapt federal education and training policy to meet the coming crisis of too few workers with too few skills.

I am pleased that this legislation is now at the final stage of the process. We were able to move this bill quickly through Committee and the floor because we were able to work in a bipartisan manner to reauthorize a program that the members of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee feel is an important part of the federal education and training system. Although the intervening work took much longer than I would have liked, I am happy to see the conference report taken up in the Senate.

I want to thank Senator Kennedy and his staff for their hard work, and for the hard work of the Senate conferees. I specifically want to thank Carmel Martin, JD Larock, and Jane Oates from Senator Kennedy’s staff. Although I understand Jane has moved on to greener pastures, she had a significant role to play in helping the legislation get to this point. I also want to thank Mr. McKeon and Mr. Miller, as well as the other House conferees, for helping us get to this point, and their staffs: Whitney Rhoades, Stephanie Milburn, Krisann Pearce, Lisa Ross, Denise Forte, Lloyd Horwich and many others. Finally, I want to thank my own staff – Scott Fleming, Beth Buehlmann, Lisa Schunk, Ilyse Schuman and Katherine McGuire – for helping me to move this bill all the way through the legislative process. They have spent many long hours seeking agreement on the provisions of the conference report and have done stellar work.

Mr. President I urge my colleagues to support adoption of the conference report, and I yield the floor.