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 District||Total Pupils||Vocational Education Millage||Total Taxable Value||Vocational Tax Revenue Generated||Vocational Millage Tax Revenue Generated Per Pupil|
|ALLEGAN AREA EDUCATIONAL SERVICE AGENCY||14,198||1.4763||$2,805,861,221||$4,142,293||$291.75|
|LEWIS CASS ISD||6,788||0||$1,491,572,671||$0||$0.00|
|CHEB-OTSEGO-PRESQUE ISLE ESD||8,514||0||$3,174,798,009||$0||$0.00|
|EASTERN UPPER PENINSULA ISD||7,032||0||$2,257,962,491||$0||$0.00|
|CLARE-GLADWIN REGIONAL EDUCATION SERVICE DISTRICT||7,264||0||$1,870,330,480||$0||$0.00|
|CLINTON COUNTY RESA||10,018||0.957||$1,849,294,491||$1,769,775||$176.65|
|TRAVERSE BAY AREA ISD||22,647||0.7336||$10,188,742,340||$7,474,461||$330.04|
|COPPER COUNTRY ISD||6,610||0||$1,157,708,921||$0||$0.00|
|WEST SHORE EDUCATIONAL SERVICE DISTRICT||7,855||0.9209||$3,054,920,472||$2,813,276||$358.14|
|MIDLAND COUNTY EDUCATIONAL SERVICE AGENCY||12,114||0||$3,513,070,952||$0||$0.00|
|MONTCALM AREA ISD||11,033||1.3384||$2,165,900,296||$2,898,841||$262.75|
|MUSKEGON AREA ISD||28,079||0.9996||$4,290,231,379||$4,288,515||$152.73|
|NEWAYGO COUNTY RESA||7,915||3||$1,344,408,600||$4,033,226||$509.58|
|OTTAWA AREA ISD||49,077||1.0423||$11,299,997,758||$11,777,988||$239.99|
|ST. CLAIR COUNTY RESA||23,405||0.9245||$5,127,930,387||$4,740,772||$202.56|
|ST. JOSEPH COUNTY ISD||10,648||0||$2,171,887,044||$0||$0.00|
|SHIAWASSEE REGIONAL ESD||11,631||0||$1,855,415,373||$0||$0.00|
|VAN BUREN ISD||15,668||2.4993||$3,681,347,317||$9,200,791||$587.25|
SOURCE: Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency