By Amanda Litvinov
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Missouri high school teacher David Hope says he’s never had a student who didn’t graduate.
That’s notable for a teacher of eight years who works with students across St. Louis County’s 24 school districts. As a career and technical education teacher, Hope says he has an advantage when it comes to keeping students on track to earning a diploma.
“We don’t have kids in our classes asking, ‘When will I ever need to know this?’”
His experience reflects the national trend. The average high school graduation rate for students in CTE programs is 93 percent, well above the national graduation rate of 80 percent. For many CTE advocates, that is one of the best arguments for dedicating resources to CTE programs.
On the campaign trail, President Trump supported expanding student access to vocational training and hands-on learning in secondary and post-secondary education. But in its 2018 budget proposal, the Trump administration proposes cutting state grants for CTE programs by 15 percent, partly to pay for private school vouchers.
Federal funding for CTE has already declined about 12 percent in recent years, making it difficult for some states to sustain high quality programs.
“The fact is that these programs aren’t cheap,” said Hope. “But if we’re serious about giving students skills that will help them walk into a job, they have to be trained on up-to-date equipment. We need to take them out in the field where they can see these skills in action.”
Hope, a former firefighter and paramedic, now runs a firefighting and emergency medical technician (EMT) academy at South Technical High School.
He says roughly 40 percent of his students have pursued careers in those fields. For others, the academy has served as a jumping off point for related work in health or public service, including nursing and law enforcement.
For a few, career and technical education is nothing short of life-changing.
One of Hope’s students—a disadvantaged teen from North St. Louis who was barely passing his classes—later admitted that he enrolled in the EMT program “just to get out of the regular classroom,” Hope said.
But then he discovered he loved the hard work and rigor of Hope’s courses. The student is graduating this year, and working to become a certified firefighter-EMT by the end of the summer.
“He could make as much money just starting his career as his parents do at their age now,” said Hope. “He has completely different opportunities because of what he was able to do in high school.”
CTE offers students the chance to learn in-demand skills or a path to associate degree programs. And the programs also benefit local economies by supplying skilled workers in fields like culinary arts, mechanical repair, welding, and emergency response.
Without serious investment in CTE programs in high schools and community colleges, the nation faces serious labor shortages, particularly in the skilled trades, manufacturing, and health care.
Many lawmakers get it: There is bipartisan support in Congress to reauthorize and expand the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce advanced a bill last month, which is expected to be voted on by the full House in the coming weeks.
Proposed improvements include involving educators in decision making about CTE programs and providing training for educators to better meet the needs of English language learners and special needs students, so they can share in the full benefit of CTE programs.
But any further loss of federal funding would stymie any real progress made in the reauthorization.
“Any cuts to Perkins will especially hurt rural school districts and disenfranchised, low-income areas,” said Hope.
“[CTE] is closing learning gaps and filling holes in the workforce. It’s ridiculous to even think of walking back that kind of progress.”