Sacramento’s schizophrenic love affair with Career Technical Education

Fred Jones

Fred Jones

Californians have never seen more systemic reforms of how schools are financed, assessed and held accountable than in the three years since Governor Brown took office. The State Board of Education, the State Department of Education and the Community College Chancellor’s Office officials are scrambling to implement these sweeping statutory and budgetary changes, with anxious districts and stakeholder groups gearing up to meet the new challenges and opportunities.

Despite all of the hoopla surrounding these dramatic changes, one thing remains constant: Sacramento’s schizophrenic love affair with Career Technical Education.

On the one hand, nearly every elected official in Sacramento has publicly declared their deep and abiding love for CTE. Some have even hailed it as a silver bullet for broader concerns of dropouts and social injustices.

Showing their fidelity to CTE, more than two-thirds of state legislators voted last summer to establish a one-time, $250 million Career Pathways Trust. These one-time grants will be awarded later this year to schools that are able to package together eye-catching CTE proposals.

But the same politicians who voted for this funding set-aside capitulated to the Brown Administration by agreeing to eliminate all funding for Regional Occupation Centers and Programs (ROCP) by the 2015-16 fiscal year. RCOPs offer industry-integrated “capstone” courses for high school students completing a sequenced pathway of career-prep courses, whether on their campus of origin or at a nearby regional center. While some may argue whether all Regional Occupation Centers and Programs are equally effective, this funding stream positively impacts nearly every single CTE program in the state; many on-campus programs are completely dependent on ROCP funds, as they often cover the CTE instructor’s salary and other expenses.

Only in Sacramento can a one-time $250 million grant be reason for celebration when in the same budget $384 million in ongoing, annual CTE funding will be eliminated following a two-year “maintenance of effort” requirement on districts. (The few CTE-related grant programs remaining in the State Budget, including the oft-touted Partnership Academies, barely withstood similar elimination, most likely because their budgets are paltry in comparison to ROCPs and require local and industry matches.)

And if this funding sleight of hand wasn’t enough, not one of the other dramatic education reforms now taking shape in Sacramento – the Local Control Funding Formula, the new Common Core standards, assessment reform, and changes to the Academic Performance Index – have yet to provide any substantive, career-prep related performance criteria. While their governing provisions all give rhetorical lip-service to “college and career readiness,”  the actual implementation of these reforms thus far has ignored the career-prep side altogether. Not a single one requires districts to make CTE programs a priority.

The State Board has decided against recommending any specific career readiness performance indicators for local accountability plans; Common Core standards are devoid of any substantive, career-oriented curricula; representatives from the Common Core test developer, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, have finally admitted their tests won’t be able to measure the career preparation of students; and thus far the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s advisory committee working on changes to the API has balked on including CTE in new high school API scores. Whether it is the regulator’s reticence to define “career readiness” or the psychometrician’s excuse that such a concept is too amorphous to validly measure, all of the promises that CTE would be included in these sweeping reforms have thus far proven empty.

Worse, these new reforms will likely speed up the ongoing demise of career-oriented programs in our high schools and county offices, since none of the existing policy drivers provide any real incentive to maintain career-prep programs.

That is, unless schools can suddenly pull a bright shiny object out of their hats with novel and exciting new ways of delivering marketable skills to their students via Pathway Trust grant proposals. We in the CTE field have been told in no uncertain terms that this one-time budget appropriation is our last ditch chance to prove CTE’s worthiness to remain a part of California’s comprehensive high school.

Forgive me if all the hype and celebration of dramatic education reform leaves me ambivalent. I have gotten used to politicians patting CTE on the head as they pick its pockets and ignore the plight that their policies have placed it. In the late 80s, three-quarters of California students enrolled in CTE programs located on their high school campuses; now, just over a quarter are able to do so. In a state report released just this week, enrollment in CTE courses has dropped by 101,090 students – 12 percent – and we have lost 19.6 percent of our state’s CTE teachers in just the last year, alone! This at a time in which our state is seeing an unprecedented skills gap in our workforce.

If policymakers and regulators aren’t willing to get serious about incentivizing schools to build and maintain robust CTE programs, California schools will continue to detach from the real world to focus on those funding, assessment and accountability carrots dangled in front of them by Washington and Sacramento policymakers. More adolescents will vote with their feet, seeing little relevance to school. Even the over-achievers will be left wanting, shuffled off to college to receive their promised reward of intellectual enlightenment without a clue as to what they’ll do with that education. Employers of highly skilled jobs will continue to struggle to find competent workers. And California’s economy will lose the productivity of its young citizens, continuing an unhealthy dependence on an aging workforce.

CTE and our state’s economy would do much better with less public fanfare and more genuine support that actually encourages schools to offer these life-preparing programs.

The only programs that will survive in K-12 schools are those that are required, measured or directly funded by the state. Given CTE is not required or measured, the loss of its dedicated funding streams – as is happening under LCFF – will be disastrous.

California policymakers who truly care about CTE have to make a choice:

  • They can require CTE courses (like they have chosen to do with other mandated high school courses); OR
  • Include substantive career training and preparation in school performance measurements (both the local plans under LCFF and any future state-reported API); OR
  • Simply protect the funding streams dedicated to CTE programs (as has been done for ROPs, PAs, Secondary School Programs, Ag Incentive Grants, and Apprenticeships for three decades).

Fred Jones represents the California Business Education Association. He has been advocating for Career Technical Education programs in Sacramento for more than a decade. The Association is a member of Get REAL, a broad coalition of employer groups, labor organizations and educators concerned about CTE in California schools.

Filed under: Career Preparation, Commentary, Community Partnerships

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10 Responses to “Sacramento’s schizophrenic love affair with Career Technical Education”

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  1. MJC on Jan 11, 2014 at 2:11 pm01/11/2014 2:11 pm

    • 000

    I am deeply disappointed in the Governor and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction along with many in the Legislature as they turn their backs on the amazing values of CTE.

    I worked for decades with students who had 3.8+ GPAs and were thoroughly and completely bored and unengaged in their high school courses, including their Honors and AP courses. They are good “students.” They can study when they are not interested and attend and excel in school having little interest or incentive beyond knowing that it is what they “should” do. But thousands of 4-year college-going students have enhanced their high school academic experience by participating in CTE courses. It has given them knowledge, incentive, and experience that moved them forward to choosing an appropriate college/university/post-secondary path. It has set them aside from other students with the same GPA, list of college preparatory courses, community service, and club and sports participation.

    Their CTE course(s) has set them apart because they had experience in the career field. These high school graduates are a much better “bet” for the accepting institution of higher learning (and for the tax payers) because these students are less likely to wander through their years changing majors as they search for what they should have received in high school: exposure to the occupations and careers that interest them.

    CTE is not about serving those who may not go to college. It’s an extremely valuable educational experience that makes a difference in the lives of all students. Throughout my service in both traditional high school and CTE program settings over the course of more than 30 years, I have heard breathtaking and heartwarming testimonials of students and parents regarding the effects that the CTE experience has made in students’ decisions and futures. “This program saved my life.” “I never liked school until I got into my CTE class.” “My ROP class challenged me as no other had before.” “I understand math because of my CTE class.” “I don’t hate school anymore.” “I have never been successful in school until now.” “I now understand why knowing the math and science is necessary.”

    Our state leaders say that they are interested in reducing the dropout rate. There is no doubt in my mind that cutting funds to ROPs, and to bona fide CTE in general, will increase the dropout rate. What a shame. Our politicians have been fed inaccurate information from those who strive to convince them that CTE, with a little teacher training, can be easily infused into the curriculum by non-CTE teachers with no workplace/industry experience. The movement to have non-CTE teachers deliver applied academics before they learn how to do so through credentialing programs (if that is even possible), is a great disservice to our students, to our system of education, and to the employers in our state.

    Lastly, to make CTE available only to districts that decide to offer it blocks access to CTE by thousands of students. Where is the equity? If a district’s superintendent and school board understand the value of CTE, then the students in their district will have access. If these district leaders do not value such education and training, then access will be blocked for their students. Will such an unethical situation be tolerated?

    The design of the California Regional Occupational Program was genius. It has been a cost-effective (approximately $350 million annually), life-changing, business-supported system that is available to every single high school student in California (traditional, charter, home school, etc.) for four decades. It has been the only educational program to have attained a consistently high level of communication with the business community and has enjoyed a relationship that some try to say does not exist in California education. To “celebrate” a one-time $250M grant that will benefit only those who receive the funds is a lot to ask. It leaves those truly informed about the impact of this funding “replacement” shaking our heads.

    It is not too late for our state leaders to decide to continue to directly fund and support a high-quality, bona fide, statewide CTE program that can be accessed by all students.

  2. Chris Walker on Jan 11, 2014 at 8:07 am01/11/2014 8:07 am

    • 000

    Well said Fred. I love the fact that while high quality vocational education is being shuttered across the state under the guise of “categorical reform” Sacramento is now proposing an entirely new categorical in 2014 to build a teacher workforce for pre-school costing more than $1B per year. Who’s in control?

  3. Chris on Jan 11, 2014 at 5:58 am01/11/2014 5:58 am

    • 000

    Almost everybody agrees we need robust vocational education in grades 7-12. Yet the Governor and the Legislature cut annual appropriation of $500M to career education and now propose $1B+ annually for preschool? What’s up with that? Priorities seem askew. Senator Steinberg – how is this “investing in career and technical education?”

  4. Carl Schmidt on Jan 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm01/9/2014 3:00 pm

    • 000

    Well said.
    Policy makers at the California and National levels can celebrate some major achievements, including: In 1970, less than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees. Today, more than 15% do. We are also experiencing explosive growth in the number of college graduates seeking and holding relatively less skilled jobs. “We now have more college graduates working in retail than we have soldiers in the US Army, and more janitors with bachelor’s degrees than chemists.” For those seeking a more equitable distribution of wealth and income: “A college degree’s declining value is even more pronounced for younger Americans. According to the College Board, for those in the 25-34 age range the differential between college graduate and high school graduate earning fell 11% for men, to $18,303 from $20, 623. The decline for women was an extraordinary 19.7%, to $14,868 from $18, 525.” (Source: Wall Street Journal,Thursday, January 9, 2014,Opinion, Richard Vedder and Christopher Denhart, page A3)

  5. Mike McMahon on Jan 9, 2014 at 8:50 am01/9/2014 8:50 am

    • 000

    One of the reason why CTE funding will be difficult for the Legislature to deal with is the new funding formula LCFF. Many school districts CTE programs are funded via a Joint Powers Agreement with other school districts or County Offices of Education. The Legislature needs to figure out a way to redistribute those dollars back into the base grant LCFF for each school districts, a very messy process.


    • el on Jan 10, 2014 at 9:33 am01/10/2014 9:33 am

      • 000

      The other issue is that the “hold harmless” provisions don’t quite follow the money correctly with respect to CTE. IE, if the county office of education was running the CTE program, the money they got for it is in their hold harmless, but they’re getting other responsibilities and will have significant budget issues that will soak up that money. The schools are getting CTE responsibility and sort-of funding transferred to them, but if they’re in hold harmless they don’t get money to do it with.

      So I see it as less:
      “since none of the existing policy drivers provide any real incentive to maintain career-prep programs”

      and more that the districts and counties and schools need not incentive, but ability, pure funding, to do it.

      The “supplemental” CTE funding that is given to high schools (last I heard, Necessary Small Schools won’t get it for some reason) is only $213 per student… that’s $1.18 extra a day per student for supplies and what not, and never mind that often these classes need to be smaller than an academic class for student safety. Tough to run a welding class on that.

      Articles like this concentrate on “incentivizing” or “forcing” districts to add CTE. In my area, there’s wide consensus about the importance of and value of and desirability of these programs. It comes down to funding them. So let’s start there, rather than bludgeoning educators for not spending money they don’t have.

      • Fred Jones on Jan 10, 2014 at 9:48 am01/10/2014 9:48 am

        • 000

        Funding is one of the three drivers that determine what is taught, so I largely concur with you, El (the other two are what the state REQUIRES and what it MEASURES for accountability). Absent being included in one (or all) of these drivers, programs/disciplines will wither away, no matter how sincere-sounding the rhetorical commitment.

        CTE in our middle and secondary schools is in a death spiral (down 100,000 enrollees and ⅕ of our CTE instructors … in a single year!). And what did the Governor propose for next year’s state Budget? Zeroing-out all remaining, dedicated CTE funding streams with the exception of $21.4M for Partnership Academies (the extra “bump” given to high schools in recognition of CTE has ZERO strings attached, so those dollars can go to Special Ed, sports programs, collective bargaining table, debt maintenance, school transportation, ELA remediation, etc.). Evidently this administration thinks there is no state interest in preparing our youth for their future careers.

  6. CarolineSF on Jan 9, 2014 at 8:09 am01/9/2014 8:09 am

    • 000

    The “everyone must go to college or else” focus, and the push to have districts adopt the UC A-G admission requirements as their high school graduation requirements, are in direct conflict with offering solid CTE programs. Most people seem oblivious to that issue, in my experience. Discuss among yourselves.


    • Fred Jones on Jan 9, 2014 at 8:24 am01/9/2014 8:24 am

      • 000

      That is certainly one of the drivers that have undermined bona fide CTE programs, Caroline. While the UC BOARS has striven hard to find CTE courses worthy of admissions acceptance, ⅔ of those are in the “F” (fine art) or “G” (elective) categories, so they really aren’t part of a genuine CTE sequence of courses. Moreover, many CTE courses that have sought and received A-G approval have had to strip-out much of the career and technology oriented instructional material (since UC prefers theoretical academics to hands-on instruction).

      This particular “college for all” problem is largely cultural, and high schools (and their counselors) are simply responding to those pressures. As more and more parents and college graduates wake-up to the reality that far too many 4 (or 5 or 6) year degrees don’t necessarily make a graduate more marketable, perhaps this phenomenon will shift.

    • Eric Premack on Jan 9, 2014 at 12:41 pm01/9/2014 12:41 pm

      • 000

      I don’t get to say this very often, but I agree wholeheartedly with Caroline.

      The Common Core Standards and “a-g” course requirements are an extended middle finger pointed directly at CTE. Until our society and policymakers develop a genuine respect for the world of work, and until serious alternatives to the Common Core are allowed, we’ll continue to decimate what few CTE programs we had–even if the CTE funding were to continue.

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