NEW YORK — Does teaching high school students how to clean a carburetor or decorate a cake give them valuable job skills or does it simply distract them from the study of algebraic equations and French verbs?
The debate over the value of vocational education in America's public schools has been raging at least since 1917, when the federal government first began funding such classes.
But it's likely to intensify this year as Congress moves to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1998 against the backdrop of the Bush administration's recommendation that such programs receive less funding.
"This administration is suggesting steering away from vocational education," says Nancy O'Brien, senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education in Alexandria, Va.
Not so, insists Carol D'Amico, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education at the US Department of Education in Washington, D.C., who says the administration is targeting an outmoded concept of vocational education.
"Some schools still treat vocational education as a job-training program with no academic component," Ms. D'Amico says. "We discourage investment in those programs."
Discussions about vocational education - or "career technical education," as its advocates prefer to call it today - often bump up against uncomfortable questions of class and race.
They also feed on a basic policy debate in educational philosophy: Should some students be encouraged to learn through their hands and experience, or should all focus mostly on learning from books?
Before 1910, such questions were seldom asked in US public schools, says James Fraser, dean of the school of education at Northeastern University in Boston. At that time only an elite minority of students went to high school, and there they pursued traditional academics and trained for college.
But from about 1910 through the 1930s, there was a drive to broaden the appeal of high school. Adding vocational education classes, says Professor Fraser, "was part of a very egalitarian effort." But at the same time, he adds, "there was also the idea, if we do this right, we might make learning more interesting for some kids."
By the 1940s and 1950s, however, he adds, some communities began to view vocational education as a kind of second-rate high school experience. "It was popular in working-class white communities, but among immigrants and in communities of color it was mistrusted," Fraser says. "They feared that [vocational education] was being used to steer their kids into second-class citizenship."
Today, concerns that technical education could be a means of sidelining some kids are very much alive. At the heart of the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education law is the belief that all high school graduates should be ready for college, whether they choose to attend or not. But that focus on core academics means other kinds of learning will necessarily be harder to fund and tougher to squeeze into a busy school day.
President Bush's budget proposal for fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1, recommends cutting federal funding for vocational education from $1.3 billion to $1 billion. It also proposes that states be allowed to transfer vocational-education money to Title I, the federal program designed to improve education in low-income schools.
Technical-education advocates worry that school administrators, many of whom are desperate to raise student scores on standardized tests, will be quick to shut down vocational programs if they can direct more dollars toward raising math and English scores.
Federal funding for vocational education in the US has been declining for years. While it accounted for 5.5 percent of the total federal education budget in 1980, it shrank to 2.5 percent in 2002. The number of students in a vocational "track" in high school has also dropped from more than 20 percent in 1969 to fewer than 10 percent in 1998.
But some educators bemoan a move away from offering such specialties at the very moment when many US businesses are crying out for workers with technical skills. "The economy and the business community are sending messages that they need these skilled workers," Ms. O'Brien says.
Vocational education is being threatened by the same forces currently endangering music and arts education, says Frank Carucci, vocational-education specialist for the United Federation of Teachers in New York.
"Schools fall into the trap of thinking, 'I'll give up my shop class and create two English classes,' " he says. "It's short-term thinking."
What such reasoning overlooks, Mr. Carucci says, is the reality that, for many students, hands-on learning is not only exciting but also practical and, ultimately, lucrative.
"There's a little bit of this elitist attitude now that we're going to push all kids into college," he says. "It's great that every kid should have a chance to pick, but I think it's wrong to say to a kid, 'Why do you want to go into automotive repair when you should be going to college?' There are people who want these skilled workers, and we may end up actually depriving kids of opportunities."
New York State has actually been widely praised for improving the quality of its technical education. In many cases, special courses to teach such skills as culinary arts, car repair, and fashion design have been strengthened to include a focus on literary and basic math skills.
That's an upgrade fully in line with the interests of the Bush administration, says D'Amico, adding that the only programs she'd like to see eliminated are old-fashioned ones that focus narrowly on skills like stenography or bookkeeping, without a value-added academic component.
She denies that the Bush administration wants to see all kids in college, pointing to Bureau of Labor Statistics that show only 20 percent of jobs of the future will require traditional baccalaureate degrees, but 70 percent will require some form of postsecondary training. What counts, she says, will be ensuring all students have a basic readiness for different kinds of training.
Meanwhile, industry is crying out for certain vocational skills. "The biggest need of [the graphics arts] industry right now is for skilled workers," says Susie Greenwood, president of the Graphic Communication Association in New York.
That's why her group has been voluntarily teaching New York City public school teachers for the past few years, training them to better teach the kinds of skills they hope to see in future workers.
Better cooperation between private industry and public schools has been part of New York's successful revamping of its technical education, says Rose Albanese-DePinto, senior superintendent of high schools in New York City. She oversees 18 specially designated career and technical high schools in the city, in addition to programs in mainstream schools that reach upwards of 30,000 students.
But that widespread program will be threatened if funding is cut, says Elizabeth Siabarra, superintendent of selective high schools in New York City.
"We're several steps ahead of other states," she says. "We've invested a tremendous amount at the front end to combine technical and academic expertise. To cut funding now would take the heart out of what we're doing."
Vocational education provides a viable and important alternative for many students, Fraser says. "Some kids do learn best sitting in lectures and learning from books, but many don't."
He is concerned that too many contemporary policymakers see technical education and high academic standards as mutually incompatible. "I'm thrilled with the focus on high standards," Fraser explains. "But I'm terrified that we're defining them so narrowly."