February is Career and Technical Education Month, an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of career and technical education (CTE) programs in our schools, training centers and colleges, and to acknowledge the enhancements needed to continue success.
Recognition of CTE's role in a comprehensive educational system is growing. For instance, the Kentucky Department of Education and the Council on Postsecondary Education are leading the development of an accountability system that measures both college and career readiness.
House Bill 225 and Senate Bill 36 affirm the General Assembly's intent that schools provide academically rigorous and technically relevant CTE programs for all students. Organizations such as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Farm Bureau support rigorous and relevant CTE programs. More than two-thirds of all Kentucky high school students take at least one CTE course; about 127,000 take three or more courses in one area of study. CTE prepares graduates for all jobs, including the two-thirds requiring a skill certificate or associate degree, but not a baccalaureate degree.
These jobs form the foundation of the nation's economic infrastructure: growing and preparing our food, repairing our cars, servicing our air conditioners, building our homes, manufacturing goods and providing business, computer, retail and health services.
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Much of the success of these programs, and the increasing emphasis on integrating high-level academics with a focus on career relevance, results from incentives contained in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, named after the long-time Eastern Kentucky congressman. It uses federal incentives to spur state and local decisions to establish and maintain CTE programs.
In the last quarter of the 20th Century, the nation's educational emphasis promoted academic instruction. Vocational education was perceived as the programs for those unable to achieve academically. In Kentucky, accountability testing emphasizing language arts and mathematics drove schools to concentrate on those programs in pursuit of rewards and recognition, and to avoid sanctions.
Despite the academic emphasis, Congress reauthorized the Perkins Act and its accompanying appropriations. To obtain financial incentives, states and schools had to maintain programs, improve academics for CTE students and encourage students to participate in career-building activities
A recent Harvard Graduate School of Education report, Pathways to Prosperity, outlines the necessity of rigorous and relevant CTE programs as essential for American competitiveness. The report was hailed by many, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The Perkins Act is a model of what a federal-state partnership should be. Ideally, the federal government supports programs and activities that cannot be conducted by the states or are of overarching national importance.
Defense is the obvious example. Others are regulating commerce, food safety and employment policy. So is making sure the nation maintains a skilled work force.
Studies show each dollar spent for CTE programs returns benefits several fold through job training, job creation, business expansion and individual opportunity. Given these facts, it is logical Congress and the president should maintain, and even consider increasing, funding for the Perkins Act.
At the federal or state level, elected leaders face tough decisions on budgets.
The $1.3 billion federal expenditure for Perkins Act programs is a lot of money, but it is less than 10 percent of the funds spent to support CTE programs nationwide. It is a critical expenditure driving states and local areas to maintain programs for a national goal of sustaining a skilled work force. It is an expenditure that spurs economic returns.
Congress should recognize its past wisdom and provide adequate funding to support the Perkins Act in 2011 and beyond. It has been in the national interest for more than a century, and it remains so today.