THE DEFEAT OF QUESTION 2 to lift the cap on charter schools has left many on both sides of this issue wondering if any common ground can be found to expand student access to high performing public schools. The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”
There is an immediate opportunity for both sides of this divisive issue to work together in pursuit of student access to the demonstrated educational excellence at the 60-plus vocational, technical, and agricultural schools and programs that exist throughout the state. The strong academic and skills training outcomes of the majority of these schools and programs have students voting with their feet to access these Career, Vocational/Technical Education (CVTE) programs. Currently, the annual statewide waiting list of students hoping to access CVTE programs hovers near 3,500 students. The longest waiting lists are in the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities.
As a result, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Association of Vocational School Administrators and Massachusetts Community Action Network, formed the Alliance for Vocational/Technical Education (AVTE) to advocate for expanded access to CVTE programs. We believe that expanding access to these schools is one of the best investments the state can make in terms of educational and economic development policy.
Academically, the Commonwealth’s CVTE schools generally post higher MCAS scores and have lower dropout rates than traditional high schools, often doing so with a more diversified student population and a higher percentage of students in need of special education services. One of the strengths of the vocational/technical education model is that the students’ academic and skills-training classes alternate weekly, keeping them engaged and learning the practical applications of academic concepts. Additionally, almost 57 percent of students graduating from CVTE programs go on to see a post-secondary education program. While comprehensive high schools send over 78 percent of their graduates to a post-secondary education, CVTE graduates have the ability to earn and learn because of the specific career skills they developed. This is a powerful tool in making college more affordable for many families and lessens the amount of debt a student may have to carry after college.
As it relates to economic policy, the single biggest issue I hear from chamber members, regardless of the size of the company or sector, is the need for a well-educated and trained workforce. This includes skills around how an employee must conduct themselves in the workplace. This latter need is also referred to as a “soft skill.” Embedded in CVTE programs is a daily emphasis on these soft skills, which include workplace readiness, teamwork, and problem solving.
Many of these benefits were validated in a study released in January of this year by the AVTE entitled, This study, conducted by Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, found that Massachusetts employers overwhelmingly prefer to hire graduates from CVTE schools and 90 percent of these employers want to increase the number of graduates from our CVTE programs. In setting economic development priorities, policy makers are wise to listen to employer workforce needs as companies base location and expansion decisions on where they can find skilled employees. This report was buttressed last month by the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center’s report, Skills For Our Future: Vocational Education in Massachusetts, recognizing that high quality vocational schools effectively prepare young people; both academically, as well as for future careers.
In response to the AVTE report, the Baker/Polito Administration and the Legislature included in this year’s final budget $45 million over three years for capital needs aimed at expanding access to CVTE programs. Next steps require aligning and expanding funding so that our Voke/Tech schools are operating after school, evenings, and weekends as well as the summer. In doing so we can ensure that students currently on waiting lists have access to these critically needed hard and soft skills that Massachusetts employers require. We also need to develop a plan for the one-third of Massachusetts municipalities that to do not have access to CVTE schools or programs for their students. Moreover, CVTE schools with proper coordination and more flexible funding from the state and federal level could play a larger role in retraining unemployed workers and providing new skills to incumbent workers.
The charter debate has disproportionately dominated much of the education discussion over the past decade. Now that the voters have clearly spoken on this issue, Massachusetts’ business, government, educational, and philanthropic leaders should come together on an issue that expands educational excellence for our kids and meets the needs of Massachusetts employers. In doing so we will create jobs in the Commonwealth that give our young people pathways to the middle class and economic security for a lifetime.
Timothy P. Murray is the president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and former mayor of Worcester and lieutenant governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He serves as a co-chair of the Alliance for Vocational/Technical Education.