$110 million for tech-education? Yes, please

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The expense of post-secondary education combined with the difficulty of navigating career pathways are the top reasons why 60 percent of Washington students don’t earn a college degree or finish a credential by the time they turn 26.

But what if students had the opportunity to choose a career path before they left high school? What if they could start training for high-demand, high-wage jobs while earning a diploma? Would a larger percentage of students find careers faster?

Governor Jay Inslee says “yes.” It’s why $110 million of his $54.4 billion proposed state operating budget is designated for K-12 technical and vocational education. The timing couldn’t be more critical.

In the next five years our state will need a workforce ready to meet the demand of 740,000 jobs. High-tech manufacturing, health care and cybersecurity will all require specialized skills, or what educators call “three-dimensional learning.”

Right now the state isn’t ready, but Inslee’s expansion of Career and Technical Education, or CTE, would put students on a fast track to jobs and a steady paycheck. Some $26 million of the governor’s budget would go toward grant funding for curriculum and apprenticeship programs; another $22 million would target K-12 and Community and Technical College programs.

Existing workers, including those in the aerospace and construction trades, would receive $16 million. Best of all: The Washington State Promise program would get more funding, which means more of our state’s need-based students gain access to post-secondary education.

Pierce County high schools already promote vocational and technical options. Many offer dual credits for specific

voc-ed programs, and all work hard at raising the profile of area technical and certification schools. But more can and should be done.

Perhaps the best place to start is by ditching the old stigma that these programs are dumping grounds for students who can’t achieve academically.

The truth is, the trades require just as many smarts. They just call for professionals with a different set of problem-solving skills.

Joyce Loveday, president of Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, says pointing kids toward a technical or vocational career doesn’t mean academic instruction is compromised. Many manufacturing and health-care related fields demand strong science, math and computer skills; and many trades, especially those involving automation, require an in-depth understanding of electronics and engineering.

But the traditional college-prep curriculum isn’t the path for everyone. An increasing number of students are choosing to forgo a four-year degree – and the years of debt that often accompany it – for high-paying jobs in the trades. Who can blame them?

Funding career preparation during the K-12 years solves a lot of problems, and it’s one of those rare issues both Democrats and Republicans can get behind, as evidenced by last July’s passage of the U.S. Strengthening Career and Technical Education Act. That bill was motivated by a report from a House Committee that warned of a national “workforce crisis.”

Inslee’s proposal for vocational and technical college education is another weapon in the arsenal against that impending crisis. Legislators should give it their full-throated support when they return to Olympia this month.

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