Time to get real on career and technical education

More educational freedom in Nevada could yield moretechnically skilled young people and less school violence

By Steven Miller
  • Friday, January 26, 2007

One of the biggest issues set to come before the 2007 Nevada Legislature will be discrimination by the state education system against students who want to start work right after high school rather than college.

Of course, the issue won’t be phrased that way.

Instead, representatives of school districts and the Nevada Department of Education will once again “explain” to lawmakers that the reason workforce-oriented teens keep getting short shrift from the system year in and year out is — that old reliable —”insufficient funds.”

Lawmakers, for their part, will commiserate. Then they’ll patiently “explain” back to the educrats that the state has many needs and, regrettably, not all can be funded to the extent everyone might desire. Following this obligatory ritual, lobbyists and lawmakers will adjourn to Adele’s for poached lobster tails with Poire Williams Liquer Infused Risotto. And while bemoaning tightfisted Nevada taxpayers, they’ll quaff fine wines billed to their taxpayer-funded expense accounts.

Here’s a radical thought: If lawmakers and ed-establishment lobbyists really want to address the Silver State’s shortage of career and technical education (CTE), why don’t they simply get real and GET OUT OF THE WAY?!

The fact is, Nevada’s problems in this area are almost entirely the product of government — specifically, its insistence (and the insistence of the powerful education lobby) that in all things educational the state must always remain the coercive and money-sucking middleman.

Just one example: If high school attendance were no longer compulsory, young people eager to get job skills and enter the workforce would simply proceed to do so. Today, however, they must by law mark time for four years, while their boredom, resentment and disruptiveness sabotage the learning of many more serious students (while grinding down teachers and administrators).

In a freer Nevada, such a teen could, with parental consent, enroll directly in a trade school. Or, if short of funds for the technical training desired, he or she could seek a scholarship from one of a freer Nevada’s School Tuition Organizations (based on the highly successful model developed in Arizona ). Yet another solution would be tuition financing from a sponsoring company in exchange for a certain commitment of time (as 18-year-olds have done for at least 45 years with the U.S. military). Once we rethink the conventional state obsession with educational monopoly and coercion of those it “serves,” many more possibilities become obvious.

True, occasionally a teen out in the job marketplace will discover that he or she is not ready for real-world employment. But such a youth would return to school — as do community-college adults today — with a saner, more serious appreciation for education’s genuine value. Indeed, the note of reality such cases would inject into our adolescent high-school culture — often virulently anti-learning — would be entirely beneficial.

Could something so radical as relaxing compulsory attendance laws for high-school actually improve high school education in Nevada? Japan’s experience strongly suggests the answer is yes. For Japanese youth, who routinely thrash American students in international education competitions, high school attendance is entirely voluntary. Yet, some 93 percent of them attend. And far fewer drop out.

“Because the entire high school student body consists of youngsters who want to attend,” observed sociologist Jackson Toby, “Japanese teachers are able to require of these voluntary students greater studiousness than it is possible to require of involuntary students….”

Toby, a criminologist, was writing at the time on school violence. While violence in America’s high schools exceeds that of its junior-highs, he noted, the opposite is true in Japan. And nearly all of that Japanese junior-high violence originates with seven percent of students — nearly all of whom leave school as soon as allowed.

A result is that high school teachers in Japan deal almost exclusively with voluntary students, notes Toby, producing a situation where teachers are much “more firmly in control of their high schools, without the help of security guards or of metal detectors...”

Here in the Silver State, public school violence continues to grow. Perhaps that’s to be expected, given our insistence on keeping angry, bored and apathetic students from pursuing the lives and training many of them see as most meaningful.

The public ed establishment’s proposed response — big new appropriations to build and subsidize an ever-larger government-monopoly CTE empire — is the walking dead, both conceptually and politically.

Rather, Nevada should follow Arizona’s successful lead — amending state law to allow more specialized charter schools while giving tax deductions to businesses that want to help.

Our chronic CTE crisis would quickly disappear.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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