The California Department of Education officially opened the grant application process Tuesday for a $250 million state fund for career and college readiness programs, signaling the start of a fierce competition among education leaders seeking to forge stronger student connections between the classroom and the workplace.

The California Career Pathways Trust, a one-time grant fund, aims to broaden the reach of existing programs while forging new partnerships and initiatives that provide students with rigorous academic instruction linked to workplace experience in high-earning, high-skilled careers.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson described the grant as a “dream come true” during a media teleconference. Torlakson said programs linking academics with careers have already produced student success on a small scale but that this new state grant is poised to replicate those achievements throughout the state.

Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who successfully lobbied to have the fund included in the 2013-2014 budget, joined Torlakson for the announcement. He called the funding “an unprecedented investment” and noted that it’s more than double the proposed federal spending President Barack Obama has identified for similar efforts.

“The economy is growing (statewide),” he said, “but there are not enough educated and trained workers to be able to fill those job opportunities. We need to make connecting education and our economy the No. 1 education reform agenda item in our state.”

The primary sectors expecting job growth in the state are health care, manufacturing, biotechnology, aerospace, agricultural technology and energy, said California Workforce Investment Board Executive Director Tim Rainey. The expected “skills gap” created by the retirement of baby boomers over the next few years further heightens the need for a better trained work force, Rainey said.

The Department of Education expects to award $15 million grants to 10 regional partnerships. Another 15 successful grant applicants will receive $6 million and up to 15 grants for $600,000 will also be awarded. The grants will be awarded June 1 and can be spent starting July 1.

All programs must be self-sustaining; applicants are required to submit a five-year budget detailing how they will finance their efforts once the grant monies are spent. Grant recipients will receive 50 percent of their award this year; 35 percent in year two; and 15 percent in year three.

Steinberg said he’s confident that the significant interest surrounding the grant will prompt lawmakers to consider additional expenditures to support grants in the future.

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