Bipartisan education bills rooted in common sense don’t come along every day. When they do, they should be celebrated.
On June 26, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) passed an update to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act. This long overdue modernization of a bill, last updated in 2006, will help usher the U.S. education system into the 21st century and ensure it is preparing students to succeed in a rapidly evolving economy.
At a time when jobs outnumber the jobless, our education system must prepare students to fill open positions. An increasing number of industries, such as computer programming and commercial construction, have thousands of vacancies, pay well, and don’t even require a college degree. Yet these positions can’t be filled because HR departments from coast to coast can’t find qualified applicants with the appropriate skills. The CTE Act will help construct a workforce armed with the skills to fill these jobs, thus fueling the American economy.
The bill will rework several rules that govern technical or vocational education. First, it creates a two-year deadline for states to achieve their performance goals. If they fail to achieve these goals, they face a lack of federal funding — a powerful incentive for improvement.
Second, the bill grants states more freedom to set their own goals and align education standards with workforce needs. States currently wrangle with the secretary of Education in a lengthy negotiation process, going back and forth over the states’ performance objectives. But under the new rules, states would have discretion in setting their own goals, which the secretary would approve as long as they follow the CTE guidelines. Increasing states’ agency will make them more invested in the process, and will ensure that states can match their educational training with employment needs.
Third, the bill allows smaller districts to benefit. Some districts don’t participate in the programs offered in the CTE Act because the administrative hurdles are too expensive or burdensome. This act would help clear some of those obstacles so that all districts benefit.
CTE legislation funds career and technical programs, both at high schools and post-secondary institutions like technical colleges or vocational schools. It provides crucial access and funding for these programs, not only for high schoolers looking to learn programming or other tech skills, but also adults going back to school and learning a trade.
The kinds of jobs for which the CTE bill helps prepare students for are in-demand and lucrative.
According to a US News report, for instance, computer programmers earn a median salary of over $79,000 — not bad for a job that often requires no college degree. And yet, there are over half a million open computing jobs, waiting to be filled.
Workers in the skilled trades are even harder to find. The latest talent shortage survey from the ManpowerGroup shows the current shortage of electricians, welders, and mechanics is the worst it's been in 12 years. These are exactly the kinds of skills the CTE bill will help schools cultivate in students. Due to this shortage, wages and benefits are rising for new workers in these trades.
Traditional schools are often unprepared to offer adequate training for 21st century jobs. However, online schools, vocational programs and technical colleges can fill the gap, giving students concrete skills for real-world positions. One online option, Destinations Career Academies, already operates in 13 states to help students take courses toward a career pathway that isn’t always available to them in their local school system. Students complete coursework and training in a field of concentration — including information technology, finance, health care, agriculture and more. This is the kind of education that could lead to careers that are in-demand and lucrative.
The reauthorization and modernization of the Carl T. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act benefits students, schools and industry alike. It breaks down barriers for states to close the skills gap, holds schools to a high standard, and delivers opportunities for students to get trained for the 21st century economy. We applaud the HELP committee for passing this bipartisan bill — and call on the full Senate to pass it quickly.
Shawn Ehnes is the Superintendent of Schools for the Julesburg School District, and a pioneer and advocate for Career Technical Education issues. Mary Gifford is the Senior Vice President of Education, and Policy and External Affairs for K12 Inc., which operates tuition-free online Destinations Career Academies and Programs throughout the nation.