What you should know about the latest Senate Perkins Reauthorization Bill


With only a few shortcomings, the Senate’s bipartisan Perkins CTE bill could provide better data on outcomes while improving coordination between workforce investments.

In a rare showing of bipartisanship, this week the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension (HELP) Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. The Perkins Act, which has been up for reauthorization since 2012, governs career and technical education (CTE) at the secondary and postsecondary levels and provides approximately $1.2 billion annually for these critical programs. The Senate bill, known as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, is very similar to the bipartisan House Perkins reauthorization billof the same name that passed unanimously by voice vote in June 2017, with a few notable modifications. Here’s a recap of how the Senate bill aims to improve CTE.

Support for Work-based Learning

The good news is that the Senate bill emphasizes work-based learning, a strategy to equip youth and adults with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Under the current law, states and local governments are permitted to invest in the development of work-based learning opportunities such as internships. The Senate bill elevates work-based learning by including it in the definition of what constitutes “career and technical education,” yet does not require universal access to it. The bill also creates new flexibility to pay for work-based learning opportunities and requires that states and local areas articulate how work-based learning opportunities will be developed or expanded for CTE students. These changes are certainly a step in the right direction, but the bill could be bolder in advancing and incentivizing equitable access to high quality work-based learning opportunities, including apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs.

More Funding and Flexibility for Evidence-based Programs, Innovation, and Research

There are several ways in which this bill supports the development and delivery of evidence-based CTE models. For one, the bill calls for an Innovation and Modernization Fund at the federal level to support the development and scaling of evidence-based interventions that improve program quality and student outcomes. Funded interventions must comply with a rigorous evaluation, which would assist the education and workforce community in better understanding which CTE models work and for whom. The Secretary can allocate up to 20 percent of the national activities budget to the Fund – or about $2.3 million a year. Additionally, if passed, the bill would increase the state’s discretionary reserve fund to 15 percent, up from 10 percent. In addition to having more money to support rural areas and areas with a high percentage or number of CTE students, if the bill were to pass, states could use these discretionary funds to address performance gaps between subpopulations of CTE students – such as individuals out of the workforce – and other students participating in CTE. This is a significant boost in helping states improve equity. Furthermore, states could elect to devote twice the percentage of funds permitted under current law to support correctional CTE, which is proven to significantly improve the employment and recidivism outcomes of justice-involved adults.

Greater Alignment with Other Federal Programs

For decades, federal workforce development and education programs have operated in silos, despite their often overlapping missions of equipping Americans with in-demand skills and credentials. Over the last few years, there has been a concerted effort to facilitate greater alignment among programs administered through the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor, and the Senate bill is a clear move in that direction. Similar to last year’s House bill, it adopts many of the core definitions and performance accountability measures from other pieces of federal education and workforce development legislation, specifically the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Also, Perkins state plans would apply to a four-year period, as opposed to a six-year period, which could help facilitate strategic coordination with state WIOA planning and priorities. While it might not sound like much, having common definitions, indicators, and planning cycles will make strategic coordination and the alignment of education and training investments easier.

Strengthening Data Collection and Performance Accountability

Establishing performance indicators for CTE students presents a number of challenges. For one, not all CTE students are alike. Generally, postsecondary CTE students have greater clarity about their desired career path. And, while some high school students enroll in a sequence of CTE courses with a clear career goal in mind, others take a smattering of CTE classes as a form of career exploration. The Senate bill, much like current law and last year’s House bill, establishes separate indicators of performance for high school and postsecondary CTE students, but limits the measures to “concentrators” – which the bill codifies as students who take a minimum threshold of courses in high school or complete a certain number of credits in higher education. This means that states and locals are only held accountable for students who participate in CTE at a higher level of intensity, an approach that significantly limits our ability to assess education and labor market trends for the vast majority of students in Perkins-funded programs.

While the accountability measures could be more robust, by including earnings for instance, the Senate bill does make inroads on improving the quality of data on CTE programs and students. The bill, requires states to disaggregate data for each performance indicator by CTE programs or programs of study and more subpopulations of students, such as homeless individuals, youth who are in (or have aged out of) the foster care system, and individuals who are out of the workforce.

Tradeoffs on the Secretary’s Authority

Disagreements in the Senate about the role of the Secretary of Education in influencing state performance goals proved to be a stumbling block to reauthorizing Perkins in recent years. This bill signaled a compromise. While the Secretary of Education does not have the authority to negotiate performance targets with a state, he or she does have the authority to disapprove a State plan if it fails to meet the requirements of the Act, such as make meaningful progress toward improving the performance of all CTE students. Furthermore, the bill not only retains the Secretary’s authority to revoke federal funding from a state for performance failure it also allows the Secretary to apply sanctions after only two years of poor performance. That said, Secretaries have never shown much willingness to revoke any state’s funding no matter how poor the performance, so it is not clear that this revised authority will actually amount to much. To be continued.

Next Steps

For the most part, the Senate Perkins bill signals progress toward facilitating greater alignment between Perkins-funded CTE programs and other relevant education and training investments, increases support for CTE innovation, and aims to improve data on who participates and succeeds in CTE programs. In the coming days or weeks, the full Senate is expected to pass some version of the Perkins bill advanced this week by the HELP Committee, and the House is expected to follow suit.  At a time when it’s hard to find common ground, it’s nice to see Congress come together to improve programs for CTE students.