WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed legislation authorizing funding for career and technical education programs over the next six years.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson was on hand for the White House ceremony.
Known as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, the new law also gives states greater flexibility in using the federal funds, encourages stronger partnerships between educators and industry and lessens the role of the U.S. secretary of education
Funding levels climb each year, from $1.23 billion in fiscal 2019 to $1.32 billion in 2024.
The new law updates the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act for the first time since 2006; the law is named after a former congressman from Kentucky.
Trump later flew to Florida where he touted the new law.
The overhaul was overdue, supporters say, and will increase the focus on jobs involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- also known as STEM.
"When it was last reauthorized, STEM education was not on the forefront of needs in our states and it is now," Arkansas' governor said in an interview. The new law "puts a greater emphasis upon STEM education and career field because that's where so many jobs are today."
The law prohibits the federal government from conditioning grants upon the adoption of a common curricula.
"We'll be able to develop our own plan that will be submitted. And as long as it's consistent with the objectives of the Carl Perkins Act that was just signed, then we're good to go," Hutchinson said.
Earlier this year, leaders of the Arkansas Association for Career and Technical Education had traveled to Capitol Hill to urge reauthorization. Members of Associated Builders and Contractors from Arkansas had also urged support for career and technical education.
The bill was supported by members of the Arkansas congressional delegation.
Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, said the bill signing is good news.
"This is an important piece of legislation that will ensure that more Arkansans get the training and the skills and the education they need to take on the job opportunities that are available in the economy today. It's a big deal," he said.
The U.S. economy grew by 4.1 percent in the second quarter of this year. Unemployment was at 4 percent in June, and the number of unfilled jobs on the last business day of May equaled 6.6 million, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Michelle Camp, the new president of the Arkansas Association for Career and Technical Education, said it's essential to prepare students for today's workforce.
"It's hard sometimes for employers to find people who are qualified. We want to make sure as career and technical educators that we are producing students to fill those jobs. Perkins funding allows us to do just that," she said.
Charisse Childers, director of the Arkansas Department of Career Education, said Arkansas' federal Perkins Act funding had been frozen at $11.4 million per year since 2010. This fiscal year, she said, it has climbed to $12.3 million.
The legislation, which passed with bipartisan support, provides a much-welcome boost, she said.
"Our agency, along with all the other state agencies that distribute the Perkins funds across the nation, have been waiting for this opportunity to enhance our program and expand the work that we're already doing in career and technical education," she said. "We're all going to benefit from the flexibility that it gives us.