MONTPELIER — Some education officials believe a recent, hotly debated reform effort skipped over a key part of Vermont’s public school system, itself badly in need of a rewrite: career and technical centers.
“They said, well, we’re not trying to get to that right now. We’ll get to it eventually. And now’s the time,” said Penny Chamberlin, the director at the Central Vermont Career Center in Barre, Vt.
In a bid to address workforce shortages and fast-track Vermonters into well-paid jobs, state officials increasingly tout the state’s tech centers. But efforts to destigmatize the trades and encourage students to explore technical education are being stymied by the system’s funding model, some say.
Relying on tuition dollars from sending schools to fund the centers disincentivizes those high schools from encouraging kids to explore their options, many argue. And that’s prompted both state and local actors to think about new ways of paying for — and governing — career and technical centers, often referred to as CTEs.
“We have public school entities competing for the same students, when the state overall is saying that the students should have access to both of those entities,” Chamberlin said. “It’s backwards in every sense that you look at it.”
CTEs aren’t the only space where this competitive tension plays out. School administrators often complain that the state’s early college program — while laudable in many respects — is also further emptying Vermont’s high schools. Both technical education and early college were successfully promoted in Act 77 of 2013, Vermont’s so-called Flexible Pathways initiative, but growing participation in alternatives to traditional high schools have exacerbated budget pressures in an era of declining enrollments.
Like the state’s high schools, career and tech centers are also feeling the pressures of dwindling pupil counts. But headcounts at Vermont’s CTEs are falling at a significantly slower pace than the overall student population.
CTE enrollment for grades 9-12 across Vermont dropped from 5,636 in 2010 to 5,194 in 2019. By comparison, total grades 9-12 enrollment saw a far more dramatic drop, from 26,788 in 2010 to 21,954 in 2019.
Last year, according to Jay Ramsey, the state director for CTEs at the Agency of Education, a third of all high school juniors and seniors participated in career and technical education. That’s up from a quarter 10 years prior.
Lawmakers have shown some interest in the problem. In 2018, in an omnibus economic development bill, they included a small grant program funding pilot projects to design new funding and governance models for CTEs. Bill Talbott, the former chief financial officer for the Vermont Agency of Education, is working with three independent technical centers — River Valley, Hannaford, and Southwest — to craft a set of proposals.
Talbott said it’s still early in the process, but they’re considering a system that would look a lot like the way the state’s traditional K-12 districts work. An independent board would put together a budget, which would go before the electorate of the CTE’s sending towns. If that budget were approved by the voters, the center would be able to draw funds down directly from the state’s education fund, instead of billing local schools for tuition. And as with K-12 schools, that region’s property owners would pay into the education fund based on how high or low their per-pupil spending was.
That’s not the only idea out there.
Dan French, Vermont’s education secretary, believes the state’s K-12 public school system is too complex, particularly given the small — and shrinking — student population it serves. A simpler system, he argues, would be more efficient and deliver more equitable opportunities to students.
French first put forward his ideas in a memo envisioning a single school district for Vermont, a document that was obtained by the press. The idea immediately stoked a political backlash, and French, as well as administration officials, were quick to say the memo was a conversation starter, not a policy proposal.
And French has, in fact, kept the conversation going, with a blog intended to get education officials and the public talking about how to simplify Vermont’s K-12 system. Its first post, written by Clifton Long, a plumbing and heating instructor at the Central Vermont Career Center, pitched a twist on French’s original idea: a single, statewide CTE district for Vermont.
Long believes that the way most CTE centers work now include all the downsides of Vermont’s balkanized school governance system, and none of its benefits. Because the centers operate independently from one another, they can’t enjoy economies of scale, can’t streamline administrative tasks, and struggle to standardize curriculum.
But neither do a majority of CTEs enjoy the most jealously guarded part of Vermont’s education system: local control. Most centers are attached to a high school — historically, the largest in the region — and governed by that school’s board. (The three independent CTE centers participating in the state’s pilot program are the exception. They have their own boards, and present a separate budget to voters, although most of their revenues still come from tuition.)
The Central Vermont tech center, where Long works, is overseen by the Barre Supervisory District Board, which oversees Spaulding High School, CVCTC’s host. But the center serves students from five other high schools — Cabot, Twinfield, Harwood Union, Montpelier, and U-32 — and well over a dozen towns. And those communities don’t get a vote.
“For funding curriculum, design, everything, you know, we’re kind of second-class citizens as far as they’re concerned. And that’s as it should be, they owe their allegiance to the people who elected them,” said Long.
Long envisions a system somewhat similar to supervisory unions, Vermont’s umbrella school districts. Each center would have its own board, with representatives from each sending high school. And those boards would send a representative to a statewide board, with oversight of the entire system.
Such a district could better coordinate with the Agency of Education, he argues, but also offer CTE centers the kind of support — in marketing, HR, professional development, purchasing and IT — that autonomous centers simply can’t afford to hire for.
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