More money for career education in Nebraska would help businesses find qualified workers, but could compete with existing funding needs, the Education Committee heard Tuesday.
The committee heard testimony on Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford’s proposal, LB48, to strengthen so-called "career academies." Those are cooperative efforts between high schools, colleges and businesses to prepare students for jobs without necessarily going through four years of college. Grand Island Public Schools Superintendent Rob Winter said there’s an important need. "A four-year institution is not for every child," Winter said. However, he added "I think every child deserves an opportunity though to continue their education and be able to come out with a skilled trade that will allow them to raise a family, that will allow them to be able to buy a home, and do all of the things that we want for all of our kids. By having the pathways and the academies, we accomplish that goal.
Rick Katt of the Nebraska Department of Education said in career academy programs, students could be exposed to areas of possible work interest in 9th or 10th grade. They could take courses to earn both high school and college credit in 11th or 12th grade, and then be on an accelerated path to get certified for various trades after a shorter time in community college after graduation. Ashford said the academies could help train people for jobs currently going unfilled, like 80-100 welding jobs at Union Pacific.
Winter said Grand Island schools began planning a career academy in 2008, working with major employers and Central Community College, and it will open this August. Ashford said his proposal is not intended to replace any current efforts, but supplement them. His bill would require at least three school districts to work together with a community college or other publicly funded college and at least one public agency, business or privately-funded group.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery pointed out the state already funds both public schools and community colleges. "The money’s already there," he said. "I don’t think so," responded Ashford. "I think it’s not quite there."
The bill would give school districts up to $1,500 per student enrolled in career academies, and would furnish up to $1,000 per student to help them get industry-recognized credentials. The Department of Education estimates costs of about $850,000 over the next two years.
Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis said because of travel distances between districts in western Nebraska, the academies would likely not be located there. He expressed concern about funding implications. "I’m looking at a fixed pot of money that’s available for education. My constituents in western Nebraska don’t get much anyway," he said.
Ashford conceded that point. Because of high ag-land values, many rural districts don’t qualify for state aid. But Ashford pointed out that a district wouldn’t have to qualify for state aid to get career academy money. The committee took no immediate action on the bill.