Destroying Michigan’s career tech system to save it

If Gov. Rick Snyder said it once, he's said it a thousand times ‒ Michigan needs to better nourish young talent for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Let's lead the nation in career tech education and the skilled trades,” he said at his inaugural address earlier this month. He calls it a top priority in his second term.

If so, he might want to take a hard look at the hub of K-12 career training in Michigan – the state's 56 intermediate school districts.

Of those districts, 23 have no dedicated vocational property tax millage and often struggle to support diverse career training programs. In northern Michigan, students in a rural district that encompasses Crawford, Oscoda, Ogemaw and Roscommon counties – where there is no millage – have just eight career training options.

By contrast, students in the Van Buren Intermediate School District in Michigan’s southwest corner choose from 28, including advanced manufacturing, graphic art, computer programming, and six options in health care. The Van Buren Technology Center boasts a three-dimensional plastics printer, a robotic welding equipment, virtual paint programs and even an ambulance built into one of the classrooms.

It also helps that district homeowners pay 2.5 mills to support vocational education. The owner of a home valued at $200,000, with a taxable value of $100,000, pays $250 a year under this tax.

But even among districts with tax funds dedicated to vocational programs, the disparities are considerable. Among 33 districts with such millages, the rate varies from a low of .62 mills in Oakland County to 4.2 mills in the Branch Intermediate School District in southern Michigan.

It seems the only consistent thing in this hodgepodge vocational system is its inconsistency.

“It's the greatest inequity we have in Michigan in public education,” said Joe Powers, superintendent of Crawford AuSable School District in Crawford County. “I don't think it makes sense to have different (career) programming dependent on your zip code.”

Districts look elsewhere

Frustrated with the lack of career programs in the Crawford, Oscoda, Ogemaw Roscommon (C.O.O.R.) Intermediate School District, Powers got his Crawford board’s approval to send high school vocational students in his district to the Wexford-Missaukee Career Technical Center in Cadillac. It is run by a neighboring intermediate school district with a 2.5-mill tax to support vocational programs.

Crawford AuSable pays $500 per semester per student for the service, a price the district is willing to pay because the Cadillac center has nearly twice the career offerings as the C.O.O.R. ISD. “The facilities are tremendous,” Powers said. “It's a tremendous upgrade in opportunities for our students.”

Crawford AuSable and another school district within the C.O.O.R. ISD - Houghton Lake Community Schools – are trying to legally separate from the C.O.O.R. ISD because officials say they are convinced they can get better vocational education elsewhere. It is a messy process that may take legislation to achieve. Greg Bush, the C.O.O.R. intermediate school superintendent, declined comment.

William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, said the friction in that ISD is symptomatic of a flawed system.

“Let's just put it this way,” Miller said. “The funding inequities are enormous.”

Though K-12 vocational education in Michigan also relies on state and federal funding, intermediate school district programs depend on either dedicated tax millage or per-student charges to local districts for most of their revenue.

For example, the 2014-15 budget for vocational programs in the Kent Intermediate Schools projects nearly $24 million in revenue, with $18 million of that coming from its .89-mill vocational property tax. Less than $2 million each is projected from state and federal sources.

A high-tech challenge

Like the governor, Miller, of the statewide ISD association, said the stakes are high, given an increasingly specialized economy that demands more than a basic high school degree from workers to earn a decent, family-supporting wage in Michigan.

“There was a time when you didn't need more than a high school diploma to get a good job in Michigan,” Miller said. “With the advance of technology, vocational programming has become more and more important.”

His point is underscored by a persistent labor shortage in Michigan, pegged in 2014 by state officials at about 80,000 positions. The shortage of workers with sufficient skills extends to openings in healthcare, engineering and advanced manufacturing. Employers like Autocam Corp. in Kentwood say they face a constant lack of skilled workers for their precision auto parts manufacturing operation.

Asked to assess how well Michigan's vocational system prepares students for the work place, Miller said: “We are average, C, whatever you call that. In a lot of highly populated areas there is a really good job being done. In rural areas, not so much.”

An obsolete system

Michigan's ISD's were formed in 1962 by legislation that abolished the state's existing 83 county districts and organized them instead as intermediate school districts. Structured as separate taxing units, their primary purpose is to conduct student counts for each individual school district within their jurisdiction, oversee special education and operate career training programs.

But assumptions about vocational training have shifted considerably since then, in a system that enrolled about 106,000 students across Michigan in 2013-2014. Students typically attend vocational classes their junior and senior years of high school, earning credits in career programs as part of their high school curriculum.

Fifty years ago, K-12 vocational programs were often little more than wood and metal shop for the boys and home economics for the girls. The cliché of that time was true: A high school graduate could walk across the street with that degree and get a good job in a factory.

Today's top programs are as diverse as the demands of a changed job market that requires far more specialized training than a half century ago. They offer certificates in programs like computer-aided design, computer networking or advanced manufacturing that can lead straight to a good job. Many offer tuition reimbursements for community college courses that are integrated into the curriculum.

But it takes money to run those programs.

Michigan's ISD system is built around a paradigm that still governs education in this state: Local control. As thinking about the possibilities of vocational education became more ambitious, many intermediate districts managed to pass millages in the 1960s and 1970s to expand career programs. It is no accident that many of the best programs are tied to substantial tax support.

It's another story in districts with no such funding. They often rely instead on payments from individual school districts within their borders that can range up to $2000 per student per course. But without a dedicated revenue stream, many ISD’s cannot afford the equipment and qualified instructors a top program demands.

According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Education study of how states fund vocational education, Michigan allocates about $26 million in state funds to local districts to support the cost of vocational teachers. Other states dwarf that amount, while leveling out funding inequities that plague Michigan’s vocational system.

According to the same study, Ohio spends about $290 million in state funds on vocational education. Georgia spends nearly $190 million. In both of those states, state funds are the primary source for high school vocational programs, distributed on a per- pupil basis. The Ohio system centers around 57 career technical centers scattered throughout the state, integrated within 91 career and technical planning districts.

“History shows that if it's all local control, there are going to be inequalities,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, a Maryland-based advocacy group for career and technical education.

“It's important that states play a role in making sure there is equity of access.”

No money, no try

Michigan’s scattershot funding system creates other problems.

Voter rejection ‒ In St. Clair County north of Detroit, voters were asked last February to approve a .4-mill increase in its .92-mill levy to support its vocational program and to eliminate waiting lists for several of its career programs. It would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home $40 a year. By nearly two-to-one, residents said no.

That prompted the district board to order more than $1 million in vocational education cuts over two years. It eliminated three programs – teacher preparation, construction and health – and cut projected enrollment at the end of two years from 830 students to 614. The cuts include four instructors, three instructional technicians and two counselors.

“We had no choice. We lost the millage so we had to make cuts,” said Dan DeGrow, superintendent of the district. He is a former Republican Senate Majority Leader.

DeGrow said a high percentage of students who complete career programs in his district find jobs. But the cuts mean there will be dozens more on the outside looking in.

“It's not just here. We need a career path for every kid in the state,” DeGrow said.

Staffing problems ‒ According to Dave Campbell, superintendent of the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency, an ISD that covers Kalamazoo County, school districts have a hard time hiring and retaining teachers in high-demand fields like welding, robotics and computer networking.

“A robotics teacher can make so much more in the private sector,” Campbell said. “We have a very difficult time retaining high-quality robotics teachers.”

The same goes for teachers in medical programs, typically nurses. “They can make so much more in a hospital,” Campbell said.

No transportation ‒ In Livingston County east of Lansing, which has no millage for vocational education, students are expected to furnish their own rides to vocational sites, which are scattered among five schools. Students who want to take a welding class at Pinckney High School – the only one offered in the county ‒ might have to drive 30 minutes or more to get there. The intermediate school district does not furnish transportation.

“That's the biggest drawback,” said Daniel Danosky, superintendent of the Livingston Educational Service Agency. “That's what keeps kids from taking full advantage of it,” Danosky said.

Danosky recently toured the Jackson Area Career Center, a 175,000-square-foot facility in Jackson County with staffing and equipment he can only dream about: An automotive technology program that includes eight bays with hydraulic lifts, a precision machining program with two computer-controlled metal lathes and an agricultural program that includes a greenhouse, barns and livestock including cattle, swine, poultry as well as fish.

It is funded by a 2.14-mill tax dedicated to vocational education in the Jackson Intermediate School District. County students attend at no charge to local district schools.

“I got to tell you, I was envious as hell,” Danosky said.

A governor’s dilemma

Given this range of problems, Bill Rustem, the former strategy director to Gov. Snyder, said he believes the entire system needs to be re-evaluated.

“It's embedded to a large extent in Michigan's propensity for local control,” said Rustem, who left the governor’s office in July. “We've left all the decisions to be decided locally: ‘What do you do? How much do you spend?’ Do we have a consistent system across the state? No. These kids are at a disadvantage.”

Rustem said there were “some discussions” in Snyder's first term about revamping the system – but no conclusions were reached.

One potential solution floated by some advocates: Scrap the current funding system and replace it with a statewide property tax that would be spread among all ISD's in the state. Districts that already have millages for vocational education could be “held harmless” and allowed to keep those millages.

But that would require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to put in on the ballot and then majority support from voters. That could be a tall order, if the recent poll results in St. Clair County are any indication.

“It's a question about what you are able to do,” Rustem said.

Asked for the governor’s view on the vocational education system, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said: “Career tech education is delivered in a number of ways in K-12 districts, intermediate school districts and community colleges, and the governor has said this might be an opportunity to look closely at the system.”

Murray said Snyder expects to discuss the issue “in greater depth” in his Jan. 20 State of the State address.

Casting a net

Campbell, of the Kalamazoo RESA, suggests a look beyond our shores for evidence of what a robust vocational educational system can accomplish.

Analysis by Harvard University found that 40 to 70 percent of students in countries like Germany, Finland and Switzerland enroll in vocational programs linked to rigorous employment apprenticeships. In Switzerland, students alternate between study in vocational schools, funded by government, and apprentice jobs within private firms augmented by training programs offered by industry associations. Last year, Switzerland was ranked the most competitive economy in the world for the sixth year in a row. Its unemployment rate in 2014 was about 3 percent.

Campbell said he views Michigan as still tethered to a vocational system rooted in an industrial economy, that has yet to catch up with demands of technology and global competition.

“We are about 30 years into a global economy and we are riding a pretty old horse. I can't think anything more important for the future of Michigan and the future of our kids. Kids need hope.

“They need to know if they work hard in school and get trained well, there's a job waiting for them.”

Vocational funding across ISD's

Of Michigan's 56 intermediate school districts, 23 have no tax support for vocational education:

Intermediate School DistrictTotal PupilsVocational Education MillageTotal Taxable ValueVocational Tax Revenue GeneratedVocational Millage Tax Revenue Generated Per Pupil
ALLEGAN AREA EDUCATIONAL SERVICE AGENCY14,1981.4763$2,805,861,221$4,142,293$291.75
ALPENA-MONTMORENCY-ALCONA ESD5,4700$1,872,570,964$0$0.00
BARRY ISD4,1100$980,334,306$0$0.00
BAY-ARENAC ISD16,7351.8939$3,327,446,392$6,301,851$376.56
BERRIEN RESA25,8530$7,472,250,779$0$0.00
BRANCH ISD5,3774.2105$1,171,674,589$4,933,336$917.50
CALHOUN ISD23,3251.4538$3,636,752,733$5,287,111$226.67
LEWIS CASS ISD6,7880$1,491,572,671$0$0.00
CHARLEVOIX-EMMET ISD9,1220.75$5,070,131,344$3,802,599$416.86
CHEB-OTSEGO-PRESQUE ISLE ESD8,5140$3,174,798,009$0$0.00
EASTERN UPPER PENINSULA ISD7,0320$2,257,962,491$0$0.00
CLINTON COUNTY RESA10,0180.957$1,849,294,491$1,769,775$176.65
DELTA-SCHOOLCRAFT ISD6,5830.9003$1,566,616,941$1,410,425$214.24
DICKINSON-IRON ISD5,0720.9827$1,486,531,987$1,460,815$288.03
EATON RESA12,9560.9231$2,571,686,914$2,373,924$183.23
GENESEE ISD67,9210.9628$9,065,248,055$8,728,021$128.50
GOGEBIC-ONTONAGON ISD2,3291$765,373,317$765,373$328.65
TRAVERSE BAY AREA ISD22,6470.7336$10,188,742,340$7,474,461$330.04
GRATIOT-ISABELLA RESD13,0601$2,568,600,461$2,568,600$196.68
HILLSDALE ISD6,1660.8918$1,078,226,388$961,562$155.95
COPPER COUNTRY ISD6,6100$1,157,708,921$0$0.00
HURON ISD4,3601.3431$2,155,813,346$2,895,473$664.06
INGHAM ISD44,3921.2925$8,344,779,473$10,785,627$242.96
IONIA ISD10,4551$1,708,477,322$1,708,477$163.41
IOSCO RESA3,8940$1,539,319,094$0$0.00
JACKSON ISD23,3642.1414$4,291,654,176$9,190,148$393.35
KALAMAZOO RESA34,5810$7,272,127,109$0$0.00
KENT ISD109,0580.8906$20,688,993,241$18,425,617$168.95
LAPEER ISD12,4641.9119$2,329,414,514$4,453,608$357.31
LENAWEE ISD15,3492.9191$3,273,880,483$9,556,785$622.65
LIVINGSTON ESA28,1910$6,794,240,154$0$0.00
MACOMB ISD133,9450$25,166,914,470$0$0.00
MANISTEE ISD4,9070$1,086,142,912$0$0.00
MARQUETTE-ALGER RESA9,4340$2,652,260,115$0$0.00
WEST SHORE EDUCATIONAL SERVICE DISTRICT7,8550.9209$3,054,920,472$2,813,276$358.14
MECOSTA-OSCEOLA ISD8,3871.497$1,930,715,159$2,890,281$344.60
MENOMINEE ISD2,7800$666,023,900$0$0.00
MONROE ISD21,2820$5,276,513,542$0$0.00
MONTCALM AREA ISD11,0331.3384$2,165,900,296$2,898,841$262.75
MUSKEGON AREA ISD28,0790.9996$4,290,231,379$4,288,515$152.73
NEWAYGO COUNTY RESA7,9153$1,344,408,600$4,033,226$509.58
OAKLAND SCHOOLS188,7750.6231$49,884,342,640$31,082,934$164.66
OTTAWA AREA ISD49,0771.0423$11,299,997,758$11,777,988$239.99
C.O.O.R. ISD7,5690$2,953,083,931$0$0.00
SAGINAW ISD28,3260$4,814,463,059$0$0.00
ST. CLAIR COUNTY RESA23,4050.9245$5,127,930,387$4,740,772$202.56
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY ISD10,6480$2,171,887,044$0$0.00
SANILAC ISD6,5581.6227$1,485,161,453$2,409,971$367.46
SHIAWASSEE REGIONAL ESD11,6310$1,855,415,373$0$0.00
TUSCOLA ISD8,6371.6496$1,901,988,383$3,137,520$363.25
VAN BUREN ISD15,6682.4993$3,681,347,317$9,200,791$587.25
WASHTENAW ISD46,3760$14,202,787,462$0$0.00
WAYNE RESA277,0150$40,127,609,001$0$0.00
WEXFORD-MISSAUKEE ISD8,4632.5$1,830,921,991$4,577,305$540.85

SOURCE: Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency

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Tue, 01/13/2015 - 11:00am
Why is everything tied to the value of a house. For a person like myself with no pension and a fixed income, all these "it's only $250 per year for a person with a $200,000 house" taxes increases are just killing me. I worked, paid off my mortgage on my modest house thinking that I could retire with the knowledge that I'd always have place to live. Now I'm not so sure. I see my future as having to move into a tent city somewhere just to be able to afford to survive. No increased taxes. and eliminate most of what we already have. Somebody wants a trade, do what we did 50 years ago and enlist in the service to learn a trade.
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 12:18pm
So once again it's the little people who will foot the bill for training workers for our businesses? They got big tax cuts ($1.8 billion, remember?) and education got cut along with road repair and now we have to pay? How about businesses helping paying for worker education and training? Funny there was no mention of how things work in Europe (opps, strong unions esp. in Germany) with apprenticeship programs, etc. The US model seems to be we 'socialize' (the citizens pay) costs then 'privatize' the profits (the business owners pocket the profits). That needs to stop. Businesses and the wealthy have done very, very well in the Great Recession and have pocketed the profits and not shared any wealth with society and supported our country.
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 3:12pm
Just look at where the jobs are going to be. Then look at where our priorities are. They don't match. A person I know once said to me I want my kids to grow up and have careers where they shower before they go to work not after they come home. My father gave me this quote 48 years ago and I have lived by it every day."If a society does not respect it's plumbers as well as it's philosophers,neither it's pipes nor it's theories will ever hold water." Think about it the next time you need someone in the trades. Wake up America. Please comment. R.L.
Wed, 01/14/2015 - 3:13pm
RL: great quote and very true. My mother (Scottish and 96 years and feisty as ever; don't mention Bush to her...) told me and repeated over the years one thing that has served me well: 'If it seems too good to be true, it probably is'. During the crazy 'easy mortgage years' when I bought a house, all the 'in the know' realtors were urging me to buy a much bigger house (ours is 2,000 sq. ft. and perfect for us 17 years later) since we'd make a ton of money buying a MacMansion.
Michael P
Wed, 01/14/2015 - 9:13am
Rich and Rick are right on. The shift in wealth leaves us with a much smaller middle class. elimination of unions which helped promote fair wages and much of the skilled training for manufacturing and skilled trades in the past, and the consistant shift of the tax burden have all greatly contributed to the problems described in this article. The current regressive tax proposals will only exacerbate the problem.
Paul Roese
Wed, 01/14/2015 - 12:10pm
how about having good jobs for the state? how about eliminating as much as possible the Temp services that make it hard for people to get good paying full time work? the reason skilled jobs go begging is for the last 25 years companies have eliminated internships and apprenticeship programs en masse. they didn't want to pay for trainning and most still don't. my company hates to hire new workers and instead spreads the work around the remaining crew when someone retires or leaves. a new worker is never given an opportunity to shadow the person they are replacing and may be pick up some tips and tricks of the trade from old employee.
Thu, 01/15/2015 - 10:19pm
I believe that allowing Intermediate School Districts to propose millages is not exactly "local control". Local control would allow individual school districts to pass vocational millages (as well as enhancement millages for the general operational budget). However an ISD can include many school districts and cover many cities, towns, and rural areas in between. Getting all those taxpayers with diverse interests to agree on any tax is a huge task. That's one reason why so many school millages fail. What I'd really like to see is a team of qualified people investigate and report to the Legislature what it would take to adjust the state-allocated school funding by real cost of living in each region of our state. I think it could be reasonably argued that it costs more to attract a teacher to a town with higher property values, and costs less to attract an equally qualified teacher to a town where housing is more affordable. Why can't school funding be adjusted using those sorts of metrics?
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 12:56am
State added cost funding and Perkins grant money goes to all approved CTE programs. What is really hurting CTE programs is three things. One the fact that the overall decrease in state funding to schools per student has forced districts to close programs due to the low student to teacher ratio needed to run safe and effective CTE programs.You cannot put 30 plus students in a welding, construction or auto class and be efficient and safe. Two the cut in funding caused school districts to reduce teachers in high schools thus eliminating room for elective classes. The third problem is the fact that Michigan came up with the idea that all students were going to a four year college. It sounded good at the time. That made algebra 2 and two years of foreign language just some of the new high school graduation requirements. Today students have no time to take CTE classes that tend to be longer due to the nature of the subject they teach. You cannot go to a job site and start building something or pull a car into the shop and teach auto repair in a 55 minute class. My simple solution is for the state to increase funding to schools without levies and with approved Michigan CTE programs to specifically help pay for these lower class size programs. Employers are begging for students and graduates with job skills. Yet we are not doing any favors to students that graduate high school college ready but have no intentions of going.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 12:04pm
Thanks Rick at least someone gets it. We need these people and those are the jobs you don't outsource. We will need literally millions of people in this country to fill those retirees skilled trades jobs. People need to differentiate between hobbies and vocational and avocational interests so they can pay their bills and college loans. R,L.
Sun, 01/18/2015 - 12:18pm
My nonprofit is hosting an event at the North American International Auto Show, titled Automation Workz, to expose more families to the new Skilled Trades careers and the skills necessary to be successful in this high paying careers. Only 25% of Americans receive a a Bachelor's Degree. The other 75 nust matriculate to Skilled Trade and entrepreneurship.
Lucia Elden
Mon, 01/26/2015 - 12:42pm
If times have changed so that high school diplomas are not enough for job acquisition, as Mr. Miller and Mr. Snyder point out, and if we can agree that people will change careers multiple times, why would we spend millions on high school vocational training? Many of these young persons will go to community colleges and, in my teaching experience, not have a broad enough academic background to both be successful in their general education courses and give them enough flexibility so they could change course--which many do--at 19, 20 or beyond. Dual enrollment can work. Let's be sure they have opportunities to develop and succeed for the 21st century instead of the 20th century.
Fri, 09/25/2015 - 3:55pm
Hi, I read this article and the attached table and hope you'll consider some corrections / considerations. Most ISD Superintendents look to CTE as a Cash Cow. They levy the tax and then later appropriate disproportionate to what is reasonable to pay for programming outside the scope of CTE. I would love to share my name with you... But I need my job. Please look at the final budget for any number of years for the Jackson County Intermediate School District and you will see nearly one quarter to a third of the budget is transferred out to programming not supporting Career and Technical Education. This has been done by guile and deception to the school board. Additionally, the District has secured Legal opinions to shift responsibility for these robberies away from the Directors and Superintendents. In Jackson the first step was to get rid of CTE administrators in the budgeting process. There is no CTE director. Take a look at this, you might find it creates and interesting basis for another article, maybe not.$3,377.000.00 to administrate a staff of 100 in program that are by definition self administrate? WTF? Every shit taken by every person working in the ISD Central Office is paid for with CTE funds. You can contact me through Craigslist, Label your post "CTE Funding". This trend is ubiquitous throughout the State. Thanks for reading... if you did.