House Approves Bill to Renew Work-Force Act That Conflicts With Obama's Policy

March 16, 2013

Despite strong objections from Democrats, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a Republican-sponsored bill on Friday that would eliminate or consolidate several federal job-training programs, which many say are redundant or ineffective, into a single $6-billion program.

The Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Learning Act (HR 803), which is known as the Skills Act, would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, a law that was designed to encourage public-private partnerships to modernize work-force-development services. The law has not been reauthorized, or renewed, since it was enacted, in 1998.

Besides consolidating programs, the Republican plan for renewing the law would give more power to state governors to consolidate other programs at the state level, require state and local leaders to use a set of common performance measures for those services, and change regulations regarding who may serve on local "workforce investment boards," which were created under the law to develop policies and oversee the operation of centers that offer resources to job seekers. Those centers are often based at community colleges.

"At a time when 12 million Americans are unemployed and the national debt is spiraling out of control, workers and taxpayers can no longer afford the failed status quo," said Rep. John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and a co-sponsor of the reauthorization bill. "The Skills Act will remove the bloated bureaucracy standing between job seekers and the training they need to get back to work. It is time for the Senate to act so reform can become reality," Representative Kline said in a written statement.

But the Obama administration, Democratic lawmakers, and community-college administrators and advocates have all expressed strong opposition to the bill, which sources say is likely to fail in the Senate.

A statement released by the White House on Wednesday said that while the bill would take some positive steps toward improving federal job-training programs, it would not "adhere to the administration's key principles for reform." The bill would freeze funds at $6-billion for the next seven years—a move the administration said would harm vulnerable populations, such as veterans, disabled people, and low-income adults.

"It is important to make sure that policies improve, rather than hinder, job access," the statement says.

Changes for Community Colleges

The bill has some positive features for community colleges, according to David S. Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

The bill would allow local work-force boards to contract directly with colleges, rather than through vouchers, Mr. Baime said. The bill would also lighten—though not as much as community colleges had hoped—the amount of information colleges need to provide in order to participate in training programs supported under the Workforce Investment Act. Many community colleges' training programs are not eligible simply because of the information they need to provide, Mr. Baime said.

Still, community-college advocates and administrators worry that the program consolidations in the bill would go too far, and that some provisions could reduce community colleges' representation on the local work-force boards. Under the existing law, a community-college representative is required to sit on each local board, but the House-passed bill would eliminate that guarantee.

"The work-force-investment system should be moving to where the community college's role is enhanced," Mr. Baime said. "This is obviously big step backwards for us."

But in its current form, Mr. Baime said, the reauthorization bill has a slim chance of passing through the Democratic-led Senate.

"There are problems that need to be fixed, and they've been identified as issues for years now," Mr. Baime said. "That's why there's a lot of frustration on the inability to get a bill passed."