Senate Committee Advances Bill to Reauthorize Workforce and Adult Education Programs
By Neil Ridley
In a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee voted overwhelmingly on July 31 to advance a Workforce Investment Act (WIA) reauthorization bill (S. 1356). The Senate action is the first significant push to reauthorize WIA since House passage of a reauthorization bill (H.R. 803) in March.
Every year, federal workforce and adult education programs, including those authorized by WIA, help millions of Americans find jobs, prepare for work and build skills required for emerging employment opportunities. While the House bill combines dozens of programs into a block grant, the Senate bill takes a starkly different approach to reauthorization. S. 1356 connects a range of workforce, education and training programs by requiring comprehensive planning at the state and local levels, adopting a shared approach to performance measurement and removing long-standing barriers to eligibility determination for certain programs. The Senate bill also authorizes Workforce Innovation Funds that are expected to identify promising service strategies for adults and youth.
The HELP Committee bill takes steps to meet the diverse needs of individuals who must improve their basic skills and who may need additional support to complete education and training and enter the workforce. S. 1356 not only requires state and local plans to address various barriers to employment in the abstract, but also ensures that appropriate services are offered and puts a clear priority on serving those with the greatest needs. A new performance accountability section requires reporting of performance outcomes by race, ethnicity, gender, age and barrier to employment.
The legislation makes concrete changes that enrich the mix of workforce and adult education services. Title II-a section of the bill which authorizes national and state-administered workforce programs-provides more flexible training options for adults and dislocated workers and allows for transitional jobs strategies that are suited for disadvantaged jobseekers. Title II also ensures that a greater number of out-of-school youth, including those who have dropped out of high school, have opportunities to earn secondary and postsecondary credentials and secure employment. Title III-the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act-formally recognizes adult education as one of the first steps on a path leading to a recognized postsecondary credential. It promotes increased transitions to postsecondary education by supporting the use of integrated education and training instructional models and creating a stronger role for states in developing postsecondary and employment pathways for lower-skilled learners.
S. 1356 is a step forward, compared to current law, but there is still room for improvement. Title II would allow unlimited transferability of funds between adult and dislocated worker programs-a step that could undercut services for unemployed workers and low-income adults. As the Senate moves forward with reauthorization, additional safeguards should be put in place to ensure that adults with diverse needs for assistance have access to services in every local area. For example, local areas seeking to transfer all or nearly all of the funding from one program to another should provide a written justification and make it available for public comment. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor should review implementation and participant outcomes following enactment.
Now that the bill has cleared the committee, it may head to the Senate floor before the end of the year. Congress must attend to pressing business, notably funding for government agencies for FY 2014, after the August recess. Committee members present at the mark-up session indicated they would offer a number of amendments if the WIA bill is taken up by the full Senate. Although the HELP committee vote boosts the chances for reauthorization, the path forward is still murky.