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July 12, 2011 10:00 AM Ignoring Vocational Education

By Daniel Luzer

A common theme of big picture thinking about college has to do with the education needs of the economy and the skills America needs its citizens to develop for the markets of the future.

Some thinkers argue that too many Americans are already going to college. Virtually everyone agrees, however, that we need more Americans with technical skills, no matter how they attain these skills.

And yet it turns out we’ve going to cut funding for technical schools in America. Apparently that just isn’t a priority in today’s budget cycle. According to an article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times:

Now, federal funding to provide… vocational and technical education is at risk. President Obama has instead made it a priority to raise overall academic standards and college graduation rates, and aims to shrink the small amount of federal spending for vocational training in public high schools and community colleges. That aid comes primarily in the form of Perkins grants to states.
The administration has proposed a 20 percent reduction in its fiscal 2012 budget for career and technical education, to a little more than $1 billion, even as it seeks to increase overall education funding by 11 percent. The only real alternative to public schools for career training is profit-making colleges and trade schools, many of which have been harshly criticized for sending students deeply into debt without improving their job prospects.

A 20 percent reduction in funding, really? Is this not important? In fact, at the speech where Obama announced that he wanted America to be the country in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, he cited the low education rates in America compared to other developed countries.

But in European countries like Germany, Denmark and Switzerland, which are outperforming us by some measures, part of the reason they’re doing so is that their vocational programs are rigorous, inexpensive, and a viable route to good jobs for many teenagers.

According to the article, back in April Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that “at a time when local, state and federal governments are all facing tremendous budget pressure” vocational training advocates for “must make a compelling case for continued funding.”

Well how important is it? Recommending that advocates for vocational programs work really hard to “make a compelling case” seems to indicate that the administration doesn’t plan to be particularly generous. Why? This doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer