One of the rapidly growing areas of education in Arizona over recent decades has been in career and technical education and teachers in the field say districts that specialize in that topic have never been in a better position.
“People are recognizing the value of a skilled workforce,” said Kevin Imes, deputy associate superintendent for CTE at the Arizona Department of Education. “I’ve never met anybody where I introduce the concept of what a CTED is and they say, ‘Well that’s a terrible idea.’ We generally get the reaction of, ‘I’ve never heard of that,’ or ‘I wish I had that when I was in high school.’”
Arizona has 14 career and technical education districts (CTEDs) that represent all areas of the state. The public districts cooperate with other public and charter schools to offer industry-specialized courses to high school students such as welding, construction, emergency medical services and many more subjects.
CTEDs, first called Joint Technical Education Districts, were established in Arizona in 1990. The latest district, the Southwest Technical Education District of Yuma, was created in 2015. Imes said Yuma’s district will likely be the last one established now that all geographic regions of the state are represented by a CTED.
About 40% of Arizona students are involved with a CTE program in some capacity, Imes said. Several schools offer CTE programs supported by a nearby CTED so students can stay at their high school and take a CTE course. Roughly 400,000 students across the state are enrolled in a course supported by a CTED.
“And that’s not just to say that students that are in CTEDs just go into industry,” Imes said. “If you complete a CTE program, you are more likely to graduate college in that area. So, there’s a higher graduation rate in high school and there’s more likelihood that they’ll participate in college.”
A 2022 report from the Arizona Department of Education lists 55% of students who enrolled in the first course of a CTED program move on to a higher course in the program. Of those students, 83% ended up completing the program.
CTED courses can also offer an alternative learning format that is better suited for students who don’t excel in the traditional classroom environment.
East Valley Institute of Technology Superintendent Chad Wilson told the Arizona Capitol Times one student in his district is struggling with his math classes but flourishing in his construction CTE course, which required implementation of algebra and geometry.
“So clearly he has an aptitude for math, but it may not have been an aptitude for learning the way it was being taught,” Wilson said.
East Valley Institute of Technology is the oldest and largest CTED in Arizona with two central campuses in Mesa and branch campuses in Apache Junction and Fountain Hills. Wilson said CTEDs have never thrived more than they do now and credited the state’s industrial success in helping grow the districts.
One major action state lawmakers took to help CTEDs was the passage of a bill in 2021 that allows the state to fund high-demand regional CTE courses for 9th graders.
As a result of the law signed by former Gov. Doug Ducey, the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Education are required to produce an annual list of in-demand regional education list of the approved career and technical education programs that lead to a career path in high demand with median-to-high wage jobs in each region of the state.
But more can be done to improve CTEDs in the state, Imes said. He said he’d like to see the Legislature pass a bill sponsored by Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, that would remove the in-demand list for ninth-graders to receive state funding for CTED courses and just make funding available for all courses. That passed in the Senate during the 2023 session, but it never got a committee hearing in the House.
Arizona reduced funding for career and technical education districts in fiscal year 2012, cutting funding for CTE students in ninth grade.
Bennett’s bill had a fiscal note that estimated it would increase K-12 basic state aid expenses in the state’s general fund by nearly $44 million annually. According to the Arizona Department of Education, more than 32,000 ninth-graders were enrolled in a CTED in fiscal year 2023.
The in-demand programs that receive funding for ninth-graders vary county to county, but some of the programs that overlap in several counties include nursing services, as well as engineering and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
Cochise Technology District Superintendent Joel Todd earlier told the Capitol Times he would also like to see the in-demand list for ninth-grade funding be eliminated because the list can be limiting for CTEDs. He said in some instances, a CTED might not even have a program on the list available for students.
Todd also expressed support for expanding CTE program funding to junior high-school students.
“There’s not too many districts that do that to a very large extent because the funding is not there. In our minds, if you want to push it down there, you gotta hit the freshman first,” Todd said.
At East Valley Institute of Technology, Wilson said students and employers could benefit from more opportunities to generate certifications from CTE courses.
“It’s those credentials that create currency for the individual student, but it also signals to the employer that the individual that has the credentials can step in and do the work,” Wilson said.
Although many CTE educators would have suggestions to improve the state of CTEDs, Wilson said CTEDs are a great alternative for students to find quality-paying and rewarding careers without taking the college route.
“People are awakening to the idea that the work that’s being done in CTE is kind of the backbone to the American dream,” Wilson said.