EL DORADO, Ark. – President Bush advocated sweeping changes Tuesday to a $1 billion federal program that provides training in vocations like car repair and health care, fast-growing fields that require workers to bring increasing sophistication into the workplace.
Bush also called for creation of $5,000 grants for poor students who emphasize math and science. He would pay for the $100 million annual program by imposing new restrictions on Pell Grants and by tapping private foundations.
The president proposed requiring high-school seniors in every state to take national math and English tests that are mandated only for fourth- and eighth-graders today.
"We're creating new jobs," Bush said. "The question is, are people going to be prepared to fill those jobs?"
The measures, which would need congressional approval, would require no new spending by the government. They represent election-year initiatives meant to address the economy's slow advance in creating jobs. Bush said a changing economy is spawning different kinds of jobs that demand changes in education and training.
The proposals came as Democrat John Kerry (search) focused on job-creation during a visit to Ohio. Kerry reminded listeners that 1.84 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office, and he renewed his pledge to create 10 million jobs. The economy gained more than 300,000 jobs last month.
On the second half of a two-day job-training tour, Bush chose to speak in Arkansas, a state he won in 2000 but one that is up for grabs in this year's election.
In his budget for the upcoming year, Bush requested that Congress trim spending for Perkins Vocational Education Program (search), from a little more than $1.3 billion this year to $1 billion. Bush asked lawmakers to replace the Perkins program with a new one called the Secondary and Technical Education Program (search), an idea the White House proposed last year.
At South Arkansas Community College on Tuesday, Bush fleshed out the details. It came at a time when Congress is considering how to renew Perkins legislation.
Bush would require that schools participating in the program offer four years of English, three years of math and science, and 3 1/2 years of social studies.
The federal program has no such course requirements now; it is up to states to define what's offered in their vocational programs, an Education Department spokeswoman said.
"When kids are coming out of vocational training programs, they're going to need to do more than just what's taught at the vocational training level. They're going to need to be able to think," Bush said.
Bush said reforms were needed to the program, drafted in 1917.
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer called the initiative "a phony baloney plan that does nothing more than shift money between programs and doesn't offer a dime to unemployed workers."
Kimberly Green, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, said she objected to Bush's assertion that the Perkins program has become outdated.
"While you can probably find a few programs that are not meeting the latest needs, you can find that in any education program," Green said. "The bulk of vocational education programs do meet the needs of today's economy, do utilize the latest technology and do prepare people for jobs in the 21st century."
The administration said it would distribute 20,000 of the $5,000 grants for math and science studies every year.
The $100 million annual cost would be financed partly through private, education-related foundations and partly by saving money by limiting the number of years students could receive Pell Grants.
Most students take 6 1/2 years to complete an undergraduate degree, but there are anecdotal stories of students receiving grants for 17 years, a senior administration official said.
Bush's new rules would limit Pell Grants to eight years for a typical undergraduate degree and four years for a "two-year equivalent degree," such as a community college.
The $5,000 grants would be a breakthrough for the Bush administration, which has focused largely on elementary and secondary education, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, the nation's largest higher-education association.
Hartle said he was delighted by the idea, "but it needs to be bigger to have a significant impact on the economy."
The plan would serve only about five students per campus if spread across the nation's traditional colleges and universities, and even fewer if trade schools were included, he said.
Bush would also expand testing requirements of the National Assessment of Educational Progress to 12th graders. Now, the federal government requires states to test fourth- and eighth-graders every other year.