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Technical education struggles to gain funding traction

Technical education struggles to gain funding traction
© Francis Rivera

A bipartisan bill to improve career and technical education has yet to be taken up by the Senate, despite passing the House by unanimous voice vote in June. 

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, introduced by Rep. Glenn ThompsonGlenn (G.T.) W. ThompsonLawmakers clash over future of coal Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Association of American Medical Colleges — Trump officials move to expand non-ObamaCare health plans | 'Zero tolerance' policy stirs fears in health community | New ObamaCare repeal plan Tensions on immigration erupt in the House GOP MORE (R-Pa.), would reauthorize and make slight changes to the Perkins Act, a law that sets the guidelines for federally-funded career and technical education (CTE) programs.

CTE programs are drawing increased attention as the economy reaches nearly full employment and a "skills gap" — the unavailability of trained workers to fill high-skill positions — threatens to slow economic growth.

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Thompson's bill, which has 40 co-sponsors, including 11 Democrats, would adjust the Perkins Act to more precisely address the needs of businesses to avoid the skills gap.

"We supported that bill. The proponents of that bill talked a lot about how it increased flexibility for programs to meet labor demands in their own communities, which is obviously a good thing," said Jarrod Nagurka, spokesman for the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin A new law just built a bridge over America’s skills gap Dems seek probe into EPA head’s meetings with former clients MORE (D-Ill.), a top Democratic supporter of reauthorizing Perkins, said CTE funding struggles as an issue because it’s not controversial.

"The problem is it never becomes the No. 1 priority for everyone at the same time," he said. "Whereas I view it as one of my top 2 or 3, I can’t move the Speaker [Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanSaudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP GOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Adelsons donated M in September to help GOP in midterms MORE (R-Wis.)] or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGraham: I hope Dems 'get their ass kicked' for conduct around Kavanaugh Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP Overnight Defense: Trump worries Saudi Arabia treated as 'guilty until proven innocent' | McConnell opens door to sanctions | Joint Chiefs chair to meet Saudi counterpart | Mattis says Trump backs him '100 percent' MORE [R-Ky.] to make it theirs." 

But even President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East MORE has made CTE a priority — although he’s also drawn criticism from some of its other promoters. 

Trump addressed what he called "vocational training" at the GOP retreat in February, saying, "we don’t have that very much anymore," and downplaying the impact of the current program.

ACTE responded, pushing back on everything from Trump's use of the word "vocational" — experts consider the term outdated — to his criticism of the term “community colleges.”

Despite its somewhat increased visibility, CTE slowly lost federal resources.

Perkins grants are appropriated by the federal government and turned over to states, which then decide how to apply the money in secondary or post-secondary institutions. 

The Perkins Act itself expired in 2012, but has been kept alive through budget authorizations in Congress. 

While CTE received a $75 million bump in the omnibus, it still receives around $100 million less than it did in 2007, even before adjusting for inflation. 

"Federal education dollars for the Perkins CTE Act have actually declined in recent years, over the last decade. And this is as there is an increasing focus on the skills gap, as employers are saying they don't necessarily have the skilled talent to meet today's labor demands," said Nagurka.

CTE supporters say it’s the key to unlocking the type of economic growth that can make a dent in poverty levels.

"The American economy desperately needs this bill to pass because it will unleash billions of dollars in private investment," said Krishnamoorthi, who invited a graduate of an apprenticeship program to the State of the Union.

"Given the fact that college costs so much and the rate at which it’s increasing in terms of cost is really unfortunate and is skyrocketing, I’m trying to figure out how to get as many people into post-secondary training as quickly as possible and get them into employment as quickly as possible," he added. 

Thompson added that the "great equalizer" in demographic disparities is in education, but in many cases people don't want to pay for or can't afford a traditional four-year degree. 

"I don't want to discredit four-year programs or six-year programs. But there's many different pathways to success in life," he said.

"The beauty of skills-based education is if you can have a defined set of time, you can come away with a credential, a specialization, a certification where you go into the workforce and you don't have a student debt that's the size of a mortgage, and there's a job sitting there at the end of the day," Thompson added. 

Thompson said there are many different examples of CTE working to integrate workers into the labor market. Thompson cited the example of DC Central Kitchen, a program that feeds the homeless while teaching them to cook.

"It's a homeless shelter there,” Thompson said. “They get a lot of people that have had bad luck, maybe bad decisions, but they bring in folks and they provide nutritious meals, but quite frankly they are very proud of their culinary arts training program there.” 

Erica Teti-Zilinskas, a spokeswoman for DC Central Kitchen, said the program, which feeds homeless people while teaching them to cook, is proof that CTE works.

“DC Central Kitchen believes that we’ll never feed our way out of hunger," she said. “We want our grads to be able to leave hunger behind, and we believe that the transformative power of a job is the best way to do that.

This post was corrected to remove a reference to middle schools. Perkins grants can't be used directly for students below the 7th grade.