With Eight-Bill Package in Trenton, Vo-Tech Schools Finally Get Some Respect

John Mooney | May 20, 2014 | Education
Legislation would increase funding and ease regulations for career-focused programs

vo-tech health
Sometimes treated like the stepchildren of the public school system, New Jersey’s vocational and technical programs got a political boost yesterday, as the state’s top Democrats announced a package of bills that would loosen the purse strings and ease the rules on career-centered programs.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) yesterday said he would introduce eight bills this week that aim to promote vo-tech programs and their missions, some with funding, others with encouragement.

The latter is, of course, easier than the former, and Prieto said he would press to include some money for districts that are sometimes left out of state-funding calculations.

One bill would provide facilities funding for the state’s vo-tech districts. Another would start to restore funding for adult high schools and postsecondary programs that were badly cut over the last five years. The adult high school program had a peak in state funding of close to $20 million a decade ago, since slashed to zero.

“There is so much talk about college readiness that I think career readiness is losing out,” Prieto said yesterday. “We need to make sure that people even know it’s out there, that parents know that there are alternatives.”

When asked whether new funds could be found in the coming fiscal 2015 state budget, as lawmakers grapple with a $800 million deficit this year, Prieto did not rule it out.

“Budgets are about setting priorities, and we need to make sure this is a priority,” the Speaker said in an interview.

The legislative package, announced with Prieto standing alongside Assembly education chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) at a midday press conference, won the quick backing of state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

“Our state’s vocational schools have long been overlooked when discussions about comprehensive education reform have taken place,” Sweeney said in a statement. “That must end.”

“Today’s students are not being provided the opportunities through technical and vocational schools that they should be,” he said. ”As a result, our workforce training and readiness have suffered.”

The state’s vocational and technical districts have been pressing hard for attention lately as state funding has dwindled for all districts over the past five years. The districts remain among the higher-spending overall, thanks to their county oversight and funding, but they have been skipped over on some aid categories they view as critical.

Earlier this year, the districts struck up a new partnership with the state’s business community, called the New Jersey Employer Coalition for Technical Education, with vows from both sides that they would work more closely together to serve each other’s needs with collaborations, internships, and other opportunities.

That message was prevalent yesterday, as the president of the New Jersey Business and Industries Association spoke in favor of the bills.

“We are very supportive of the efforts by Speaker Prieto and Chairman Diegnan,” said Melanie Willoughby, acting president of NJBIA. “Our goal is to make sure that businesses today have the entry-level employees who are prepared for the modern world of work and that workplaces have a pipeline of highly skilled workers.”

The loss of funding for adult education and postsecondary programs has left the districts especially smarting.

“That was an aid stream eliminated under [the state’s funding formula], and the result is that most programs have closed or are a lot less than they once were,” said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

The eight bills are intended to achieve a range of goals:

  • Require New Jersey’s school performance reports to include specific indicators of student career readiness;
  • Require preparation programs for teachers and school counselors to include coursework to support improved student career readiness;
  • Authorize the Economic Development Authority to issue an additional $50 million in bonds to provide grants for county vocational school district facilities projects;
  • Establish four-year county vocational school district facilities partnership grant program;
  • Require all school districts and public colleges to enter into dual enrollment agreements to provide college-level instruction to high school students;
  • Provide regulatory leeway for county vocational school districts’ programs held in industry settings and other offsite locations;
  • Deliver additional state aid to districts with enrollment increases of more than 10 percent; and
  • Supply state aid for adult education programs.