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On Second Thought . . .Cutting Funds For This Wasn't A Good Idea

One state legislature has to backtrack after a "mistake."

Thu January 28, 2016 - West Edition

Veto-proof majorities in both the Arizona House and Senate have signed on as sponsors of a bill repealing a $30 million cut to high school career and technical education programs.
Veto-proof majorities in both the Arizona House and Senate have signed on as sponsors of a bill repealing a $30 million cut to high school career and technical education programs.

PHOENIX (AP) Veto-proof majorities in both the Arizona House and Senate have signed on as sponsors of a bill repealing a $30 million cut to high school career and technical education programs.

The cut enacted in the current year budget takes effect on July 1 and many of the 14 stand-alone districts that oversee the programs say they will be badly hurt if they lost the money.

The 72 lawmakers who have signed onto Senate Bill 1258 include Republicans and Democrats from rural areas and from the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas. The pushback to the cut that appeared in last year's budget at the last minute has been growing for months.

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who wields power as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is the primary sponsor.

“In my opinion, we made a mistake in the last session,” Shooter said Jan. 22. “And I think the quicker we fix it the better.”

Gov. Doug Ducey's budget proposes a new $10 million per year grant plan for tech programs that partner with businesses, but it appears in deep trouble among lawmakers. The governor's spokesman said Ducey remains open to other proposals.

“Gov. Ducey agrees that career and technical education needs to be supported in our state so that our students are prepared for life. That's why his budget includes a new investment in this priority,” spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in a statement. “Our office is open to reviewing any recommendation that brings dollars to this area while also ensuring the budget remains balanced.”

Nearly 100,000 Arizona high school students are enrolled in the programs run by special districts called Joint Technical Education Districts, or JTEDs. They offer classes in health, technology, construction, auto mechanics and other skills around their regions or in stand-alone schools.

Alan Storm, superintendent of the Pima County JTED, said the payments will set off a cascade of closures. That's because the districts return the extra funding they get to local districts to support the programs, and the budget cut will take about half of the cash those districts receive for the programs.

For instance, Storm's district gets about $900 for each of the 16,000 students enrolled, then returns about $700 per student to local schools. When the cuts go into effect, half of that $700 will go into normal operations.

“If they say ‘I can't afford to lose $344 every time a kid takes a class,' they're going to start cutting the [career and technical education] classes. They're going to lay off the teachers,” Storm said. “It's only going to take two years to completely decimate career and tech ed in the entire state of Arizona.”

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said the high graduation rate of students enrolled in JTEDs is proof of the program's success.

“We need good mechanics, electricians and plumbers,” he said.

He said that while the governor's plan is a good start to restoring funding, it doesn't go far enough to help rural counties. Ducey's plan offers $10 million a year for three years with matching funds from local businesses that support the programs. But businesses in rural areas such as Prescott are fewer, and often have less money to support JTED, than in big cities and counties.

“It would certainly be easier in Maricopa and Pinal County, but it doesn't really work for us up there,” he said.

Although Campbell supports restoring the JTED funding cut last year, he said that any such proposal should make recommendations for streamlining the funding of the programs.

Senate President Andy Biggs raised the issue publicly earlier in January at a legislative preview luncheon. He said he believes some schools are gaming the system by classifying core classes at technical education to get extra cash. He didn't sign onto the restoration bill.

“We need to make sure there is strong technical education available to kids. I'm all for that,” Biggs said at the Jan. 6 event. “But I also think we need to take a good look and put a spotlight on this and make sure that we're getting what we need to.”

Shooter said he believes some reforms to address Biggs' concerns are likely.

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