Sacramento’s schizophrenic love affair with Career Technical Education

January 8, 2014
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:

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.

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