Career tech programs battle tight budgets, college-path emphasis

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

Career technical education is new in name, but not in practice.

Formalized career training programs in the United States date back more than 100 years. But while the idea remains the same -- get young people the skills they need to have a successful career -- much has changed as to the number and type of students who enroll, who pays for it and what purpose career training serves now.

Career and technical education "has always reflected what we've needed at the time," said Stephen DeWitt, deputy executive director for the Virginia-based Association for Career and Technical Education.

During the Industrial Revolution and in the early 20th century, most programs focused on specific jobs and students enrolled in the programs right out of high school, DeWitt said, adding, "Today's career tech needs to be much more than that."

OVERVIEW: Central San Joaquin Valley schools dive into career technical education

School career programs have made significant shifts in the past 30 years.

Traditional vocational programs have long been criticized for "tracking" low-income and minority students out of college-preparatory education into programs leading to low-income, low-skilled jobs.

As a result, many schools began phasing out the programs as national education standards shifted to a college prep model, with all students sampling electives on top of their math, social studies and science classes.

Between 1992 and 2013, the number of California high schoolers enrolled in career programs shrank from 66% to 38%, according to a new report from the California Department of Education. Last year alone, the study shows, the state saw an 11.5% drop.

The total number of career classes offered statewide -- about 35,625 last year -- is almost identical to the number in 1992. Class offerings got as low as 23,600 in 2008 but have shot up again in recent years.

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The number of health science, media and agriculture classes has increased, while classes in most other areas -- like business and home economics -- have dropped sharply since 1992.

Chuck Riojas, secretary-treasurer for the Fresno chapter of the Building and Construction Trades union, laments the decline.

Riojas is a proud McLane High graduate. He talks fondly about his high school days in the early 1980s, making napkin holders in woodworking class.

Early exposure to trade jobs helped him realize his affinity for mechanical work -- and ultimately led to his career as an electrician.

Now, he said, schools don't offer enough skill-based courses. Even if students don't wind up in jobs needing those skills, they come in handy around the house, he said.

"As a parent, I feel it's fortunate I had some tools around the house. I was able to show both my kids how to turn a wrench and a screw."

Some districts are swapping out those shop class courses for more high-tech options or career tracks that lead to well-paying trade jobs.

LIST OF PROGRAMS: High school ROPs, community college CTEs

More career academies -- pathways that tie together a set of academic and vocational classes -- also have sprung up across California, including the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, a partnership of Fresno and Clovis unifieds.

Tough budget years are forcing other changes, too, like finding new ways to pay for expensive career training facilities, equipment and teachers.

Nationwide funding for career education has remained relatively flat for several years: the largest federal vocational grant, called the Carl D. Perkins Act, dropped from $1.3 billion in 2002 to $1.1 billion in 2014.

At the state level, the changes are more obvious. California's education funding overhaul signed into law last year redirects more than $400 million once dedicated to special regional career programs into school districts' general budgets.

Previously, most of the funding went directly to county education offices, which oversee career programs. Existing programs have a two-year reprieve -- then districts can spend the dollars however they like.

"Virtually all of (the career tech grants) have disappeared," said Lloyd McCabe, career tech education administrator at the California Department of Education.

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Some programs, like Valley Regional Occupational Program, could be sheltered from the cuts. Deborah Marvin-Deeter, superintendent of Valley ROP, said the five districts her organization serves -- Kingsburg, Kings Canyon, Parlier, Sanger and Selma unifieds -- already have signed an agreement to continue funding career tech.

Other organizations face more uncertainty.

Valerie Vuicich, administrator for Fresno ROP, said her budget has shrunk from $11 million to $8 million since 2010. She expects it to be slashed by another $2 million next year.

School districts may choose to spend dollars once used for ROP in other ways, she said.

"Districts have been in such a hard spot financially through this whole last recession that there's going to be a lot of pressure on them to get that money and backfill other areas that are in need," she said.

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The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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