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Access to career-tech in Michigan varies by ZIP code. That’s a problem.

Poor and non-white students have less access to high school career-tech programs that can lead to jobs earning middle-class wages, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Across the state, 54 percent of white students enroll in at least one CTE class in high school, compared to 41 percent of African-American students and 44 percent of Hispanic students, according to the study, co-authored by Brian Jacob, professor of education policy and economics at U-M.

There was no disparity in enrollment between minority and white students attending the same high school, according to data provided to Jacob by the Michigan Department of Education. That leads Jacob to conclude the different rates of enrollment are a result of differences in access to career-tech programs between school districts.

Economically disadvantaged students also are less likely to enroll in career tech programs (47 percent at some point in their high school careers) than the state average (51 percent).

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican predecessor Rick Snyder have both praised career and vocational training as a means to improve Michigan’s economy and help students not attending college find good jobs.

“Closing the skills gap in Michigan is a critical component to ensure we increase household incomes and support a growing economy in our great state – and these career and technical education programs serve as a valuable tool to do just that,” Whitmer said in April 2019 during a visit to a career tech center in Kent County.

State Superintendent Michael Rice is also a fan of career tech programs.

Enrollment and completion of career tech programs has skyrocketed in recent years, with enrollment up 23 percent since the 2014-15 school year and completion (often a two-year series of classes) up 75 percent. More than 104,000 students were enrolled in CTE classes in 2018-19.

But students who are least likely to enroll in college and thus more in need of career tech programs, are the students least likely to have access, according to the U-M study.

“I wouldn’t have been surprised if [the disparity] was AP (advanced placement) courses or gifted and talented programs or college advising,” study author Jacob said. “But I was more surprised by the disparity in CTE.”

Career tech programs vary wildly in size and offerings between school districts because the programs aren’t mandated and, to a large extent, are funded locally.

“There is a problem with equity in career tech,” said David Campbell, superintendent of Kalamazoo Intermediate School District. “That’s because we have an inequitable funding system.”

Intermediate school districts get some state and federal money for career tech, but that is typically supplemented with local dollars often through millages. Because tax bases vary between ISDs, the amount of money that can be raised varies.

“We get a half-million from the state and about a half-million in federal money [for career tech programming], and it’s a $5 million program,” Campbell said. “There’s a financial disincentive to run these programs.”

The money crunch means some districts have few offerings, and others have waiting lists of students who want to enroll.

In St. Clair Regional Educational Service Agency (serving seven school districts in St. Clair County) has increased its CTE offerings in recent years, enrolling about 800 students in programs ranging from construction trades to cyber security.  Superintendent Kevin Miller said there are 48 slots for their computer science career tech program, and almost that many more students on a waiting list.

“My goal as a superintendent is no student is ever turned down, but that would take additional funding,” Miller said. “There’s more need than the current funding paradigm can provide.”

Kalamazoo’s Campbell argues that the solution is a complete overhaul of Michigan’s school funding system to emphasize equity over local control. Short of that, the state could provide more funding for career tech to districts with few current offerings.

 “If we want to focus on educational equity, there needs to be some policy changes," said U-M's Jacob. “There are lots of different pieces to this, I’m not sure there is one simple fix. But given the interest in the Whitmer administration, there should be the political will to do something.”

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