Job Corps makes case for more funding

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WASHINGTON — Leaders of Job Corps centers around the country are converging on the Capitol today with a plea for more funding.

After a day of lobbying sessions Tuesday, those leaders are dispersing to congressional offices to ask members to add money to President Barack Obama’s flat-funded budget for the Job Corps, which offers free high-school equivalency education and vocational training to low-income teens and young adults, up to age 24.

It could be a tough sell to lawmakers, who have accused the Department of Labor of mismanaging the program and deleting funding too quickly. Centers across the country, including in Pittsburgh, had to temporarily freeze enrollment between January and April 2013.

But it’s the department, not center operators, who caused the problems, leaders of the National Job Corps Association said Tuesday at a policy forum in Washington.

Despite last year’s shortfall, the Department of Labor has proposed the same level of funding for this year, $1.66 billion.

“The funding request that the Department of Labor put forward is deplorable,” association director Aaron Grau said at a policy forum in Washington. His group is seeking $124 million more — enough, he says, to fully operate all 127 existing Job Corps centers and to enroll more students.

The administration, meanwhile, is considering closing chronically low-performing centers and transferring their students to other Job Corps facilities. Closures have been proposed in the last three administration budgets but have note yet happened.

That concerns association leaders and center operators, who say that’s incongruous with the president’s goal of improving workforce preparedness. And, they say, even the lowest-performing Job Corps centers have better results than vocational schools and other job training programs. There’s always going to be a lowest-performing center, Mr. Grau said.

The Pittsburgh facility, one of the largest Job Corps Centers, appears to be in no danger of closing. It is ranked in the middle of the pack of 127 centers.

Labor Department officials addressed concerns during a panel at the policy meeting.

There are “some centers that — regardless of what we do or whether we put them on a continuous improvement plan — they continue to sort of hang around at the bottom. So the thought is … we could close some of those historically low-performing centers and transfer those [enrollment] slots to other centers that have a better track record,” said Grace Kilbane, a former Labor Department Job Corps director who temporarily returned to her old job after an agency shake-up that followed the enrollment freeze.

Job Corps association leaders maintain that last spring’s enrollment freeze could have been avoided if the Department of Labor had listened to suggestions about shifting funding. They say the department has been more responsive and transparent since Ms. Kilbane took over.

Job Corps is a national, federally funded program providing career training or young people who face barriers to entering the workforce. The centers offer counseling, training, housing, child care, transportation and academic programs.

In Pittsburgh, many students are working toward associate degrees through Job Corps partnerships with area community colleges.

Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello:, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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