Finance reform without accountability could devastate career tech

Under the current K-12 public education system in California, programs that are not required, measured, or explicitly funded by the state will disappear from our schools. Elective courses are becoming victims of educational policy that only recognizes “success” as defined by scores on standardized tests in courses mandated for graduation or college admission. Since that’s all that is really measured, that’s all that will really matter.

The ongoing state budget deficit and the lack of financial incentives to support programs outside of the mandated core academics will undoubtedly force districts to abandon such electives with impunity. This is our concern with  the “Weighted Student Formula” (WSF) proposal. Because the latest version of education finance reform doesn’t alter the current approach to accountability, we fear WSF will accelerate an already alarming narrowing of the curriculum.

In areas like career technical education (CTE), the impact of this well-intended reform could be devastating. Without incentives provided to districts to support these elective programs, there is simply no reason for them to do so. If you doubt that scenario, just examine the impact of the “flexibility” provisions granted to districts for programs like ROPs, Adult Education, and others since 2009 under the state budget. Given the unfettered authority to “flex” the use of these funds for any purpose, districts have obliterated Adult Ed throughout the state, and have put undue pressure on the vast majority of ROPs to survive on a starvation diet. Without  appropriate educational policies that hold districts accountable for truly meeting the needs of all students, this scenario will hold true for programs outside of the “required” or “measured” mandate. That’s not a recipe for success.

From a purely budgetary perspective, distributing CTE dollars without any vocational accountability upon schools makes little sense either. The three CTE-related categoricals most at risk under WSF  leverage every dollar the state invests. The Ag Incentive Grant requires local districts to match each state dollar (requiring districts to provide an extensive, annual report on the use of those precious state dollars). Apprenticeships are largely funded by contractors and unions, thereby stretching each state dollar invested in these “learn while you earn” programs. And Partnership Academies require both a local and industry match for each state dollar, magnifying the state’s investment threefold. Simply sending out these dollars on an per-student basis without any vocational strings 0r leveraged match requirements will cause more harm to education under any calculation.

We hope the governor and the Legislature take the time necessary to develop solutions to protect career technical education programs while also achieving education finance reform. Given the challenges facing these programs at the local level, we know our schools will not continue to support career technical education without the incentives to do so.

Jack Stewart is President of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association. He also co-chairs Get REAL (www.getrealca.org), a coalition of labor, employers, teachers, and other organizations committed to protecting and enhancing access to Career Technical Education in California schools.

Career tech ed must be in the mix of options for all students

College is not a career; college is just one of many pathways to a successful life.

California’s post World War II 50-year prosperity boom was built with the hands of skilled workers. Think aerospace and defense, the auto industry, Silicon Valley. The innovations in those industries came from workers with all levels of education, and the products were made by hundreds of thousands of workers who received technical training in our state’s K-12 public school system. As recently as the late 1980s, more than seven out of every 10 California high school students were enrolled in a Career Technical Education (CTE) course. Today, fewer than three out of every ten students receive that opportunity.

A recently released report of a 2-year study conducted by Harvard University’s School of Education on the outcomes of our education system, including colleges, shows there are many pathways to success. “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans For the 21st Century” is a candid and insightful look at our public education and provides clear policy implications that college-for-all is leaving far too many students unprepared for entry into the 21st Century workforce.

Leaving our students and workers unprepared in a challenging workforce market is unacceptable. Demand for workers is down, but demand for skilled workers is increasing every day. California’s own return to prosperity requires equal opportunity for all our students to choose their own career pathway, whether it’s receiving real-world technical skills in high school, obtaining an associate’s degree from a community college, or getting a four-year degree at a university.

Government budgets are significantly contracting throughout California’s K-20 institutions. This is why policymakers must re-evaluate the fundamental purposes of taxpayer-funded compulsory education.

With accountability assessments, course mandates, college admissions criteria, and funding mechanisms all fixated on a narrow bandwidth of English language arts and mathematics, broader curricular offerings, such as career technical education, art, music, and even the core disciplines of science and social studies, have been significantly scaled back in the instructional day of most K-12 students.

For kids who struggle in either ELA or math, their entire instructional day can be devoured by those two disciplines at the expense of all other curricula. Due to mandatory remediation programs, this narrowing of the curriculum phenomenon is particularly pronounced in schools at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, where high school dropout rates have reached epidemic proportions. Studies show the California dropout rate as high as 38 percent, with some high schools experiencing dropout rates well in excess of 50 percent.

It ‘s time to get away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education. This narrow approach – particularly in our middle and secondary schools – has disengaged and discouraged many students.

Industry-relevant, hands-on, career-oriented career technical education courses connect a student’s aspirations with his/her education. When such a student is thus engaged, education becomes much more meaningful and valuable. Many students who never considered pursuing a college degree are tuned in and turned on by their CTE experiences.

I am reminded of my favorite response from a precision welder who makes things for the aerospace industry. When asked why he worked in such an industry, he replied, “I have only a high school diploma, I make $75,000 a year and I make things that have been on the Moon.”

That is a pathway to success that California can’t forgo.

It is also no surprise that some recent studies indicate that young people who take a series of at least three secondary CTE courses graduate from high school, go on to college, and finish their degrees at much higher rates than those who never had an opportunity to participate in vocational education.

It’s time to place a new priority on hands-on, applied learning and provide all students clear and attainable career pathways that are aligned to each student’s aspirations and aptitudes. And when a four-year college degree is part of a given pathway, then college preparatory coursework must be accessible to every student pursuing that pathway. But insisting that all high school students enroll and complete all required college admissions criteria is both unnecessary and counterproductive, as the Harvard researchers concluded.

Policymakers and administrators have spent too much taxpayer money attempting to squeeze all students through the same narrow education keyhole. California employers need all types of workers with all levels of educational achievement. The state’s university system can accommodate only 16 percent of our high school students. We all know that the other 84 percent are potential success stories, too, if they can obtain the real-world skills they need to compete.

Jack Stewart is President of the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, a position he has held since 1998. He is also co-chair of Get REAL (Relevance in Education And Learning), a coalition of employers, labor groups, educators, and others concerned about California’s commitment to Career Technical Education. He formerly served as Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Commerce, where he managed the state’s economic development programs.