Op-Ed: Comprehensive High Schools, a Key Piece of the Vo-Tec Puzzle

Even if a $500 million bond issue for career and technical education goes through, comprehensive high schools won't get a penny

J. Kenyon Kummings, Christopher H. Kobik, and Chuck Sampson
Last year in New Jersey, 74,319 students took vocational-technical education courses (now referred to as “career and technical education” or CTE) in fields ranging from aeronautics to plumbing. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, 41 percent of those students attended classes at facilities run by the 21 county vocational-technical schools. The majority of students (59 percent) received vocational-technical training in the 110 comprehensive high schools that offer at least one CTE program or “career academy” on site. Students in both county and local institutions benefitted from high-quality programs that led to higher education and/or careers.

Now, a bill pending in the Legislature (S-2293) calls for the bonding of $500 million for expansion of CTE programs. If the legislation and subsequent statewide bond referendum are successful, the entire amount will be awarded in the form of grants to the county vocational-technical schools and county colleges. The comprehensive high-school CTE programs that educate the majority of New Jersey’s vocational-technical students will not receive a penny.

A critical shortage

Educators and employers agree that New Jersey faces a critical shortage of qualified workers in a wide range of vocational-technical areas, including traditional trades like welding, and new, high-tech fields like logistics. To fill those high-paying jobs, we need to focus on the best and most cost-effective means of opening career pathways to a larger number of students.

Existing CTE programs at the state’s comprehensive high schools already offer access to all district students (including the special-needs students who often require the kinds of specialized support that comprehensive high schools already provide). The county vocational-technical schools admit only students who meet specific admissions criteria and turn away 15,000 students per year. At a time when resources are limited, traditional comprehensive high-school CTE programs provide students with valuable career training, including courses sequenced and aligned with industry standards, advised by industry partners, and combined with internships and onsite applied learning opportunities in their home districts. Students receive these opportunities at a lower per-pupil cost and without the need for time- and cost-intensive transportation to sometimes-distant county facilities.

In short, CTE programs in comprehensive high schools are an integral part of New Jersey’s vocational education puzzle. Yet these programs receive significantly fewer resources than comparable programs offered by the county institutions. County vocational schools are funded by a combination of revenue from their counties, plus tuition from their students’ home-school districts. Taxpayers in those home districts are also responsible for the significant cost of transporting CTE students to county schools. CTE programs in comprehensive high schools operate primarily within the confines of existing district budgets and do not require added expenditures for pupil transportation.

Some have argued that it is more efficient to offer vocational-technical courses at large, centrally located county facilities. Students from home districts with few or limited vocational-technical courses certainly benefit from these excellent schools, and no one would suggest that they do not have a critical mission.

But CTE should not be confined to any one school design or location. Clearly, government, county vocational-technical schools, and comprehensive high schools need to work together to provide the maximum CTE access to the greatest number of students. We in the comprehensive high-school community have the experience and knowledge base necessary to assist the Legislature in planning a more inclusive approach to career and technical education. We hope that our elected leaders will let us help them develop a more realistic, cost-effective approach to vocational education that will prepare our students for the careers that will make them — and our state — competitive and successful in the years to come.