- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s system for teaching career and technical training could be on the brink of a major overhaul thanks in part to a new report, but officials say it’s too early to tell how much the potential changes could cost and who should pay for them.

Career and technical education, once known as vocational education, is essentially skilled training for work that will require more than a high school diploma. The terms encapsulate numerous fields and industries, and such education is gaining attention as Iowa and other states seek to counter a potential shortage in skilled labor.

An education task force created by the Iowa Legislature in 2013 released a report recently that offers recommendations to expand the way such training is offered in the state. It includes having more curriculum offerings starting in the seventh grade, closing a gap in available educators and streamlining the system so it’s more accessible throughout the state.

Officials, including Gov. Terry Branstad, have also announced plans to focus more on training opportunities.

While officials agree that more career and technical training is needed, they can’t yet break down the costs of such reforms recommended by the task force. Jeremy Varner, with the Iowa Department of Education, said the agency plans to use the task force recommendations to help develop a bill for the upcoming legislative session.

“Obviously, acting on some of these recommendations would have a fiscal impact … but what that looks like depends on the details, and those are sort of being hashed out,” he said.

There’s been a gradual shift in perception of what is career and technical education, also known as CTE. People used to think of it as something that was available for people who didn’t get a four-year degree from a college or university, according to Sean Lynch, a spokesman for the Virginia-based Association for Career and Technical Education. Today, it’s an all-encompassing juggernaut of training that is available to high school students and furthers career opportunities for people who may have two- and four-year degrees. It’s important that the public recognize the shift, Lynch said, because people are reconsidering whether traditional college is necessary for well-paid jobs and careers.

Lynch added that it’s important to get lawmakers on board, because “if they don’t understand what CTE looks like, they might not understand why investing in it is a wise decision,” he said.

The state’s current offerings of career and technical education - which includes training in agriculture, family and consumer sciences, health, business, industrial technology, and marketing - is hard to quantify in terms of costs, said Varner with the education department. There are training opportunities for people at different stages of their lives and careers, and it’s funded by different sources of state, federal and private dollars.

Career and technical education is available at about a dozen centers around the state through schools and regional centers that are often organized through community colleges, Varner said.

Kirkwood Community College’s Jones County Regional Center in eastern Iowa is touted by the task force as a prime example of a successful career and technical education. Center director Lisa Folken said she could not quantify the investment used to open the center in 2009. She said it included working with several area school districts that committed to pay for high school students to attend classes. There was also the donation of land to build the center and the use of revenue bonds.

Folken said the support of nearby school districts was key.

“It’s kind of like the whole Iowa slogan, if you build it, will they come?” she said. “We had the commitment and that was huge.”

As legislation is prepared on the state level for the upcoming legislative session, it comes at a time when lawmakers have had very public battles over education funding for K-12. Varner said the issues are separate. He noted some of the recommendations could happen through reorganization of current funding. Plus, the task force included state business leaders from the Iowa Federation of Labor and the Iowa Business Council. Varner said such education is non-partisan.

“That says something about the direction of the work and how much support it has,” he said.

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