By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service
LANSING — When retired Clintondale Community Schools teacher Ken Austin started teaching in 1974, the vocational technical education department was largest department in the building, he said.
“Now, there’s nothing left,” Austin said. “I was really the last man standing as far as what they used to call ‘shop classes,’ and through budgetary constraints even that was eliminated. And that’s kind of why I retired — because there wasn’t any work for me to do.”
It’s a situation that Michigan employer groups seek to rectify.
A number of factors have contributed to the decline of vocational classes, Austin said. One is more stringent local and state class requirements..
“Gradually over time, at my particular school and just in general, course offerings for those kinds of classes kind of stayed on the books, but they’re driven by how many students are available to sign up for them and there became fewer and fewer opportunities for students to take those classes,” Austin said.
The Michigan Manufacturers Association supports efforts to change the state’s graduation requirements to be friendlier to technical education, said Chuck Hadden, the group’s president.
“We find that the curriculum is very rigid and doesn’t give you the opportunity to work with your hands a lot of times,” Hadden said.
A good example is foreign language requirements, which Hadden said should include computer language options.
Welding should be considered an alternative to taking Algebra 2, he said.
“You need Algebra 2 to be able to weld,” Hadden said. “We’re not trying to lower the standards, we’re trying to keep the standards high but give some alternatives out there that could allow people to work with their hands and still graduate.”
While foreign language is important for those going on to higher education, it should not be required if a student’s wants and needs don’t align with them, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart said.
“When funding dries up and standards of graduation increase in the core areas… when is there time for me to take a welding class, which is what I really want to do?” Herbart said. “When is there time for me to take these introductory medical classes in the career and technical education department, when I am required to take four years of a foreign language which I may or may not ever use?”
As budgets shrank, expensive classes like vocational and teaching classes became easy targets, Austin said.
Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed an additional minimum per-pupil funding increase of roughly $230 per pupil for the coming year’s budget.
But longstanding problems with funding and stricter curricula have starved public school programs that once provided course work in welding, small engine repair, culinary arts, agriculture, computer-assisted design and other programs, Herbart said.
“Gov. (Rick) Snyder talks about it like he invented this pathway. I want to just choke him and say ‘Before you cut the funding we had those programs, and then you starved those programs and now you want them back again?’ Well, we’re happy to do it,” Herbart said. “We can’t even get certified teachers in those areas anymore because we starved this funding so bad that those teachers couldn’t get jobs so they stopped going into that as a profession.”
Losing vocational classes is a disservice to students and the community, Austin said. Many of his students were able to get apprenticeships or industrial work because of technical classes.
“Even students that I had many years later would come back and say, ‘You know, I’m an engineer now, but the classes that I took with you and others proved invaluable to my understanding of how things work.’
“I think we’ve made a mistake, but I’ve sang that song for 40-plus years and not too many people were listening, and I would still sing it but nobody’s paying a lot of attention.”