Governor candidates find common ground: Expanding career tech programs. But will families buy into it?

Lively Tech welder
A welding student at Lively Technical Center in Tallahassee, Fl. Diane Rado/Florida Phoenix

Amid the strife, turmoil, and ideological differences throughout Florida’s gubernatorial campaign, Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum found some common ground.

They agree on an important piece in their education platforms: Expanding career and technical education (CTE) – courses that prepare kids for the workforce and may not require a traditional college degree.

It’s what parents and grandparents might be familiar with from their own high school days, when some kids took courses – or were placed in classes — such as automotive, woodshop, cosmetology and home economics, while other kids got into college-prep classes and went off to four-year colleges.

Nowadays, career and technical programs have been retooled and are more on the radar as students face crippling college debt and industry officials want to make sure they have a skilled workforce, experts say.

And while political party fights on public education in Congress and state legislatures have been common, CTE has generally become a bipartisan goal.

“It is probably the last remaining bipartisan piece of anything in this country,” says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the Southern Regional Education Board.

In Florida’s governor’s race, the two candidates are far apart on key education proposals – but not CTE.

DeSantis wants to expand career and technical programs, making sure courses are of high quality and can lead to higher skills and higher-wage jobs, according to his campaign material. And DeSantis would work with the Florida Legislature “to find ways to support and expand apprenticeships” for jobs that are in demand, among other proposals.

Gillum wants to increase, invest and revitalize vocational training in public schools – what he calls “Shop 2.0” – integrating computer education into all vocational programs “so that students can learn the skills they need to build a career and support a family,” according to his education platform.  Gillum also would focus on making college debt free and encouraging businesses – not just taxpayer-funded public schools — “to share the responsibility for educating the workforce they want to hire.”

Florida already has a robust CTE program across the state, and experts say expanding it would create new challenges.

For 2016-17, Florida’s high school enrollment in CTE was 341,648 students, up from 290,731 two years before. In addition, Florida’s enrollment in CTE for those who have already graduated from high school was 105,937 students. Nationwide, 8.3-million high school students enrolled in CTE classes that year, as well as 3.6-million post-secondary students. That data comes from a state profile, says the Perkins Collaborative Resource Network.

The main federal law that distributes money to states for CTE programs is the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act.

For 2018, Florida got $68.7-million in federal CTE funding, trailing only two other states: California and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The total nationwide is $1.1-billion.

While the proposals by Florida’s governor hopefuls to expand CTE appear promising, there would be challenges to put them in place – especially because many parents and families still cling to the college-for-all mantra, says Shelly Bell, director of Lively Technical Center in the state capital.

At Lively, 800 students – some still attending area high schools and others who have already graduated – have access to courses in everything from welding technology and aviation mechanics to digital design and the health fields, such as training to become a nursing assistant or a pharmacy technician. Courses lead to industry certifications and then, hopefully, jobs.

The current course catalog also shows the potential earnings for graduates, such as $12 to $30 an hour, on average, for graduates of the initial welding technology program, and $24 to $55 an hour for the advanced welding technology program.

Lively Technical director Bell says that CTE expansion would require “trying to take the stigma away from vocational education.”

In years past, wealthy suburban middle-class families, and then blue-collar families, wanted their children to go to college, perpetuating the idea that all students should do so. That idea remains part of the lexicon of high school preparation, Bell says, and changing parents’ minds would be a big step toward expanding CTE. And while it’s common for guidance counselors to steer kids into college, Bell says career counseling for job-related fields should be paramount as well.

Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, said one of the biggest challenges in expanding CTE programs would be getting qualified teachers in the various fields. Another issue is having the physical room to expand.

“The problem I see in a lot of places, is they don’t have adequate space to really provide robust CTE (courses) to get to industry credentials,” Stone says.

Programs also need the latest equipment to stay current.

“Does your shop, lab, reflect what’s going on in industry today?” Stone says. “How do you keep the classroom up to date with technology that is frightfully expensive?”

And while DeSantis wants to expand apprenticeships and Gillum is looking for businesses themselves to share the responsibility for educating their workforce, that’s easier said than done.

Stone says it’s “difficult to get industry to show up on a consistent basis.”

“If you are running a business,” he says, “can you afford to take somebody’s time to work with this adolescent in an apprenticeship model?”

Overall, CTE expansion would take money as well as a new mindset. High school students, Stone believes, need to think carefully about how they want to proceed.

On his organization’s website, he writes: “Graduation day is near. Is college really the next best step?”

 

 

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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