WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2016 - As thousands make the trip to Indianapolis this week for the 89th annual convention of the National FFA Organization, a pair of issues that might not be discussed at the four-day event are keeping FFA’s DC team busy.
More than 60,000 people are expected at the convention, including thousands of FFA members clad in their distinctive blue jackets as well as advisers, sponsors and guests. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to address the gathering Thursday morning, one of the last major conventions he’ll speak to as secretary.
Riley Pagett, a former Capitol Hill staffer who served as National FFA’s president five years ago, heads FFA’s DC office. He said that among other things, they’re focusing on reauthorizing a critical piece of education funding and fighting for recognition of ag career diversity in the administration.
In September, FFA (formerly, the Future Farmers of America) sent a letter to Capitol Hill asking lawmakers to support the reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The House has already cleared the reauthorization under the legislative vehicle of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (H.R. 5587), which authorizes about $7.1 billion in funding through fiscal 2022.
A bill has yet to clear the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and FFA and other career and technical student organizations are hoping that will happen in the lame-duck session.
“If we’re wanting to get something signed by the end of this year, then that will need to happen pretty quickly, and days are running out,” Pagett, National FFA’s director of advocacy and government relations, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.
Pagett said they aren’t running into opposition to the funding itself – allocated as grants for a wide variety of career and technical education (CTE) endeavors – but rather some technical differences that need to be resolved between the House and Senate bills.
In addition to FFA, the push is also supported by the Association for Career and Technical Education and Advance CTE (which represents state directors of CTE) as well as other CTE organizations like the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) and SkillsUSA.
Pagett said that the groups are carrying the message that “if we really are serious about this, and we’re serious about education for all of our students in every state, this is a way that we can show that.”
In addition to a push for Perkins reauthorization, Pagett said National FFA and a host of other groups are also working to realign an agriculture career definition within the Department of Labor. DOL’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) of agricultural workers includes those who “maintain the quality of farms, crops, and livestock by operating machinery and doing physical labor under the supervision of farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural managers.” Pagett says National FFA sees that definition as “extremely limited in scope.”
“Quite frankly, our organization would cease to exist if that was the case,” he said. “We believe in preparing young people for a vast number of what we deem are agriculturally related careers . . . There are a number of careers that we boast pretty proudly every year that we are preparing young people for.” For example, Pagett pointed out this definition would exclude something like a rural accountant, a food scientist, and even an agriculture educator. While such a discrepancy could easily be downplayed as a difference of opinion, Pagett said FFA and other CTE stakeholders are concerned that the limited definition could lead to CTE programs being shut down in favor of more targeted educational approaches to in-demand careers. In addition to National FFA, four state FFA affiliates, the American Farm Bureau Federation, CoBank, and several other groups submitted comments expressing concern about what that language could do to CTE classrooms. Those comments were being submitted for a 2018 revision to the SOC manual.
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