Dan Walters

Opinion: California vocational education in danger

California, College, Career & Technical Education Center (CCCTEC) - a public, tuition-free charter school in West Sacramento with a rigorous curriculum focused on both academics and career technical education.
California, College, Career & Technical Education Center (CCCTEC) - a public, tuition-free charter school in West Sacramento with a rigorous curriculum focused on both academics and career technical education. lsterling@sacbee.com

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship can be faulted for many failings – particularly squandering opportunities to clean up the state’s tortured finances.

However, he also deserves credit for some accomplishments. Not the least was pulling vocational education – training for the real work of a prosperous society – back from the brink of extinction.

It’s now called “career technical education,” or “CTE.” It’s not only vital for a functioning economy, but vital for those who lack interest in and/or aptitude for collegiate education, but want careers in well-paying skilled fields.

Schwarzenegger had such training as a high schooler in Austria and became its champion, questioning the fallacious college-for-all doctrine that defies not only logic but also the needs of millions of kids and, if anything, increases the dropout rate.

As governor, he publicly touted CTE in high schools and community colleges and backed it with more state aid. Later, as president pro tem of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg also beat the drums for CTE.

Both are now gone from the Capitol, and CTE is once again in peril. Schwarzenegger’s successor, Jerry Brown, has advocated, successfully, the elimination of earmarked state school aid called “categoricals,” saying he wants to maximize local decision-making.

With obvious reluctance, he agreed to some earmarked CTE money, but he wants to phase it out over several years, leaving it to local school officials to allocate support for job-related instruction.

Some will continue to respond, but in large urban districts – those with the highest dropout rates, incidentally – there’s little appetite for CTE, which is more expensive than ordinary classroom instruction, requires teachers with specialized knowledge, and runs counter to the prevailing college-for-all mentality.

The huge Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has one of the state’s highest dropout rates, but for the past decade has required – on paper – that high school students take, and pass, a full slate of college-prep classes.

The Los Angeles Times calls that “big on good intentions, but short on common sense,” which is quite accurate except for that “good intentions” caveat. L.A. Unified’s superintendent, Ramon Cortines, is trying to change the policy, but it’s still in place, even if widely ignored.

Such one-size-fits-all decrees send the message that anyone who doesn’t have, or even seek, a college degree is somehow a lesser person. And it shortchanges those kids who could be well-paid auto mechanics, machine tool operators or computer technicians – or could do countless other jobs that modern society needs done.

Even as debt-saddled college graduates hunt for jobs, often in vain, and even as too many students drop out of high school, there are serious shortages of skilled workers.

If we let CTE slide again, we’ll all pay the price.

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