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Clinton’s ‘School-to-Work’ Initiative Attacked

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He concedes that his effort is likely to fail. He jokes that he has become a human dartboard for many Orange County educators and business leaders.

But that hasn’t stopped Ken Williams, a conservative Villa Park physician, from using his newly won seat on the Orange County Board of Education to attack President Clinton’s pet “school-to-work” initiative.

Last week, Williams and his allies engineered a curious hearing on the federal career-guidance program, enacted in 1994, which is channeling $4.7 million into scores of Orange County business-school partnerships over five years. Backers say that many students who aren’t headed for college--and some who are--are gaining valuable insight into the working world through a variety of programs that bring business leaders into schools, and classrooms into the workplace.

In comments before, during and after last week’s hearing, Williams derided what he called “a big-government program” and a “mandate” that will “dumb down education.” He said another hearing is set for March 5, although board President Elizabeth Parker said she may try to stop it.

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“We’re going to have an honest debate, bringing things to the forefront,” Williams said. “I want the people of Orange County to know what’s going on here.”

What is going on, exactly?

Once an obscure agency overseeing an $89-million annual budget that mainly supports more than two dozen public school districts, the county Department of Education has become the scene of intense and free-flowing political debate since Williams and fellow conservative Eric Woolery won election last year on a back-to-basics platform. They are just two votes on the five-member board, but they have proved their ability to joust with the other three and win an occasional swing vote.

In this case, Williams and Woolery have forced the board to revisit an issue that most Orange County educators had considered a done deed.

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The Board of Education unanimously agreed last spring--before the conservative insurgents won office--to allow the Department of Education to act as a fiscal agent for Orange County’s school-to-work program. That meant simply that the agency would accept federal dollars and disburse them to a coalition of more than 100 public and private agencies that won the grant. So far about $600,000 has been disbursed, county officials said, and several hundred thousand more will be shortly.

But after Williams and Woolery took office last July, they demanded an investigation of the program touted by Clinton during his reelection campaign. They persuaded board member Felix Rocha of Fountain Valley to side with them.

And so hearings were scheduled, even though the board does not wield veto power over the program. The strongest action the Department of Education could take is to renounce its role as fiscal agent. In that event, program backers say, the coalition of grant recipients could form a nonprofit agency to handle the purse strings.

Rocha said in a telephone interview that he has no intention of taking such action, which would make it virtually impossible for Woolery and Williams to do anything more. Rocha said he merely wants to explore such issues as whether the vocational program will dilute academic standards in high schools.

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But students, school administrators and business leaders say the school-employer partnerships have done just the opposite. They also say participation is voluntary, not mandated.

Heather Patalano is enrolled in a career academy at Westminster High School that she says has helped her toward her goal of becoming a health-care social worker. The Health Sciences Career Academy is 6 years old, which predates the Clinton program, and is viewed as a model for others that are sprouting up to take advantage of federal funds. Officials say its curriculum preserves traditional high school requirements but adds elective courses that bring students into hospitals and clinics, and health-care workers into the school. Seniors, for example, can view an autopsy if they wish.

“The health academy is teaching what life is, and what you need to obtain your goals,” Patalano, a junior, told the board Tuesday night. “The earlier you get a chance to explore your interests, the earlier you can learn what you need to accomplish your highest aspirations.”

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School-to-work backers appeared to outnumber the critics at the meeting.

The main speaker against the program was a woman who identified herself as an “education policy analyst,” from the city of Palm Desert in Riverside County.

Parker, the board president, denounced the hearing as “a waste of taxpayer money” and said she will oppose holding others.

“It’s not our right to cut off funding,” said Parker, a board member for 14 years. “If [Williams and Woolery] try to tell local districts what to do, they’re guilty of doing exactly what they say the federal government does. They’re in direct violation of local control.”

Williams replied: “Part of the problem is that Elizabeth Parker’s been there too long. She’s part of the education status quo and the bureaucracy.”

He acknowledged that the education establishment is likely to prevail on this issue, despite his protests.

“Let’s put it this way: I don’t think we’re going to win this battle,” Williams said. “But if anything, I’m going to raise the level of consciousness about this program. My conscience will be clear.”


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