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Investing in career technical education programs has been a priority for both major political parties in the state, but that didn't stop Gov. Tom Wolf from vetoing a bill aiming to improve how the programs are certified.

Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, issued a news release Thursday, Oct. 25, criticizing the governor for vetoing his legislation, House Bill 2157, the day before.

“Wolf’s inability to work across the aisle on one of the most simple and bipartisan issues in Harrisburg is troubling and will result in making it more difficult for schools across Pennsylvania to properly educate our future workers," Grove wrote.

The bill: Vocational schools have been pushed hard by politicians at the state and federal level as a way to promote skilled labor and a career path that might not demand higher education.

The bill would require the Pennsylvania Department of Education to create a standard application for public school entities — including nontraditional schools such as cyber charters — seeking approval to establish or renew their classification for instructional programs.

It would also force the education department to issue new guidelines every five years to solidify when and how a student would be able to apply credits toward completion of a course offered by vocational and technical schools.

The legislation received bipartisan support in this year's session, unanimously passing the House and receiving only three negative votes in the Senate.

Why veto? The catch, Wolf said, is that the recently established Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence would be given control of issuing such guidelines for credits students want to use toward an agriculture education program.

In his memo about the veto, Wolf argued the bill would jeopardize federal Perkins Funding by removing the ability of the Pennsylvania State Board for Vocational Technical Education, which functions under the education department, to approve agricultural career and technical programs. 

If the bill became law: Since the bill puts certification for agricultural programs in the hands of the commission, Wolf wrote, such programs would no longer be able to receive federal funding — the education department is the only state entity permitted to receive and distribute federal funds.

"The Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence does not have federal authorization to approve programs, and the state Legislature cannot direct this federal authorization; thus, programs approved by the commission would not be eligible for Perkins funds," Wolf spokesman JJ Abbott said.

Without the federal funding for agricultural education programs, the schools would have to make up a $6,345,299 difference in funding, Abbott added.

Grove challenged Wolf's reasoning, saying the bill "merely gives (the commission) the authority to issue and update guidelines," and that would be done in conjunction with the education department, since the secretary of education sits on the commission.

But Abbott said the bill "wasn't sufficient" in solidifying the education department's role in drawing the guidelines and ensuring the department would still be able to distribute federal funding.

Communicating the problem: In Grove's news release, he further criticized Wolf because the governor "at no point" contacted him to voice concerns while the legislation was in the House.

Abbott said it is the Wolf administration's understanding that "advocates also shared this language with House Republicans."

Wolf also proposed an amendment to the Senate on Oct. 17 that would allow the education department to have more oversight over the proposed guidelines, which could have been implemented with small tweaks in the bill's wording.

But Wolf's proposed amendment was never tagged onto the bill in the Senate — and without Wolf's amendment, there was no signature.

In the end, the governor has support from the Department of Agriculture despite the Legislature's disagreements, said the department's secretary, Russel Redding,

"While we should find ways to engage with leaders on the commission and in classrooms across the commonwealth, we cannot jeopardize any funding for agriculture education programs," Redding said. "We’re committed to working with the Department of Education and General Assembly to strengthen and improve agriculture education programs and find an approach that preserves funding that is so critical to these programs.“

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.

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