President Donald Trump recently signed the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, or Perkins V, which reauthorized $1.2 billion dollars in federal funds for career and technical educational (CTE) programs. The new law gives states more flexibility to set their own goals for CTE programs, along with reporting progress toward those goals. Who might benefit from these changes, and what new challenges do they present to the state?
Perkins V supports programs that integrate career skills and prepare students at the secondary, postsecondary, and adult education level for the workforce—for such careers as IT technician, accountant, or nurse. Funding is based on student enrollment, and each year California receives more than $110 million in Perkins dollars, the vast majority (85%) of which go to CTE programs in high schools and community colleges. During the 2017–18 school year, close to 780,000 (40%) high school students and 420,000 (35%) full-time community college students participated in CTE.
California’s CTE students generally reflect the demographics of the overall student population, though Asian American, Latino, and female students are slightly underrepresented. Over time, the overall number of students participating in CTE has decreased, but the percentage of low-income students who do so has increased. Today, low-income students account for more than half of CTE participants. Benefits associated with CTE programs include decreased high school dropout rates (for low-income students in particular), increased high school graduation rates, and higher wage returns (particularly in health fields).
Although the new law provides states with greater flexibility, some of the provisions may present a challenge for those hoping to measure the impact of Perkins dollars in California. For example, under the new requirements performance indicators follow only students deemed to be “concentrators,” or those who complete a substantial number of courses in a single CTE program of study. Currently, concentrators account for less than half of CTE participants, so the indicators may not capture the outcomes of all who are served by Perkins funding. In addition, some of the core indicators—such as student placement in postsecondary CTE education—require the use of a comprehensive longitudinal database on student outcomes, a tool that California does not yet have. Furthermore, performance indicators are not broken down by industry sector, which makes it difficult to evaluate state-specific sectors, such as fashion and interior design or energy and utilities, which are unique to California’s economy.
Going forward, the Perkins reauthorization ushers in a new form of CTE program accountability at the state level. If California wants to continue to close the gap of 1.5 million workers with “some” college education, it needs to make inroads on designing, improving, and scaling up effective CTE programs—and on improving the quality of data on CTE programs and students.