For many of Oregon’s students, high school has become a dead end that leaves many students uninterested and unmotivated. At 47th out of 50 states in high school graduation rates, Oregon’s students leave high school generally unprepared for college or to join the workforce without the hands-on skills needed to be successful.
The crippling of the education pipeline for construction and other basic industries can be seen across many educational programs. For over 40 years, Oregon has joined much of the rest of the country in pushing students toward a four-year college model. For some industries, such as high tech, this was essential. For a modern economy, it is critical. But for many students, there is no interest in going to a four-year school. These students tend to want to work with their hands and not be inside or stuck at a desk.
During this same period, vocational education programs were systematically disassembled. Where wood, metal, and car shops were in almost every high school (and some middle schools), today they are rare. Over the years and during the economic recession, over 600 (50 percent) of Oregon’s secondary Career Technical Education (CTE) programs were eliminated, reducing school districts’ connections to their local and regional workforce and educational leaders.
Looking at data from 1970 to the present, there is an almost unmistakable relationship between Oregon’s dropout rate and the decline in vocational/CTE education. With a nearly 50 percent reduction in CTE programs, Oregon’s public high school graduation rate fell to the fourth lowest in the entire country. This is simply unacceptable.
These numbers demonstrate that a fundamental change is needed within public high schools to keep many students motivated and interested. These are capable, intelligent young people, but they do not perform well within the traditional education environment. If left unaddressed, low graduation rates will continue to plague Oregon’s workforce and economy.
In the November 2016 general election, Oregonians began to address this problem. Ballot Measure 98 was passed by voters by a 2-1 margin. The measure promised to get many more students to earn diplomas by allocating $800 per student for career technical courses, college credit classes, and dropout prevention in high schools.
However, with the legislature facing a $1.6 billion budget gap and what some critics have said are “weak points” in the measure, the future of CTE funding across the state is still unclear. Because the passage of the measure changed Oregon law, as opposed to the Constitution, the legislature has the power to alter funding levels or any other provisions of the measure before schools receive any money.
In her December budget proposal, Governor Kate Brown recommended allocating just $139 million to the programs in the measure instead of the $300 officials estimated would be needed to carry out the measure as the voters clearly intended over the next two years.
So where do we go from here?
Over the past six years, AGC has worked with other industry partners, legislators, administrators, and two governors to increase funding for CTE. Although these efforts have successfully doubled the amount of dedicated CTE money (roughly $22 million per biennium), there is still more to be done for the up-and-coming generations. For comparison’s sake, Washington State alone invested $411,675,936 from July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014 for their state’s CTE and apprenticeship programs. We are not keeping up with our neighbors to the north. And we are not doing what we must do to help our children succeed.
Fully funding the measure that voters approved will enable school districts to expand upon proven approaches for addressing the dropout crisis, open new career doors, and prepare students for success in college and their career. Full funding will also be one more step in helping these students become fully-employed tax-paying citizens, which will also contribute to generating the revenue to pay for this and other important services.
As industry members and leaders in our communities, it is our duty to ensure that classes for construction trades and technologies, engineering, alternative fuel design, computer science, 3-D printing, welding, graphic arts, health care, and others are available to all high school students should they choose to pursue those opportunities. We know students can succeed in the hands-on environment of CTE classes. Successful and engaged students make for highly skilled workers.
Fortunately, we are finding willing partners in many of Oregon’s school districts. As bond measures for school maintenance, modernization, and new construction are brought before the voters and are passed, we are seeing physical space to support vocational education classes and programs being rebuilt into our schools. Most notably, providing for CTE space and programs is a common part of conversations in bond development committees, which are heavily guided by parents. They get it.
If we can reach our future workforce in high school and channel the energy they have into the development of a pipeline of highly skilled workers, the future of construction and other industries — indeed, all of Oregon’s economy — will be very bright.
Income stability and long-term career development is important to our kids. If Oregon is serious about improving graduation rates and providing for greater student success, CTE is the perfect means to that end. CTE is a win for the economy, a win for the industry, and a win for the kids themselves.
For now, we applaud the Measure 98 campaign’s work on this critical issue as a means to improve both the construction industry and Oregon’s overall economic well-being. We thank Governor Brown for beginning the full-funding discussion through her budget request. We hope the legislature will see the wisdom in and the need to fully fund this request as the 2017 legislative session continues.
Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of the Associated General Contractors, Oregon-Columbia Chapter. He can be reached at 503-685-8305 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the Business Tribune and can be viewed here.