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Archive for Sunday, October 10, 1999

TEACHING TECHNOLOGY

October 10, 1999

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Kansas has fallen behind in supplying people trained in technical fields, and it's time to catch up.

It's a matter of supply and demand.

The explosion of technical jobs has created a demand for employees with a new kind of training, and the state of Kansas isn't able to supply enough of those employees. They don't need college degrees, but they need specialized instruction that they may not obtain in high school. It's an area that has been a low priority in the state and it now needs attention.

Figures presented in a Journal-World story this week define the problem. Between 500 and 1,000 Kansas students are on waiting lists to enroll in programs offered by the state's vocational-technical schools. They are seeking training that could bolster not only their own earning power but the overall state economy. But first they must wait.

There is, for instance, a three-year wait to get into a communications technology program at Northwest Area Technical School in Goodland. The Manhattan Area Technical College had 244 people on its waiting list when classes began Aug. 8. Why can't the state serve these students? It's a matter of dollars and cents.

There are seven area vocational-technical schools offering specialized programs in Kansas and four technical colleges that offer associate degrees. In addition, there are five community colleges that also are area vocational-technical schools. Some of the schools operate in facilities provided by school districts or built using federal funds in the 1960s. The buildings weren't designed to meet today's demand, and there is little chance that money will be found in the current state funding scheme to change that situation.

The state picks up about 85 percent of the cost of operating the vocational-technical schools in the form of post-secondary aid, according to Joe Birmingham, the Kansas Board of Regents' deputy executive director. The other 15 percent of the cost is paid either by school districts whose high school students attend the programs or by individual post-secondary students who pay their own tuition.

Here's how the funding picture shakes down. Paying 85 percent of the expenses for the state's 16 vocational-technical schools and colleges costs the state about $26 million, Birmingham said. About $20 million of that comes from the general fund and about $6 million from the Economic Development Initiative Fund, which is money from the state lottery.

The state also provides a capital outlay fund for the schools, but it is meager. The 16 schools split about $2 million a year in the fund. Updating the equipment they need for classes eats up most of that money and there is almost nothing left to undertake the building projects that would allow vocational-technical schools to expand their facilities and, therefore, their programs.

Private technical schools can pick up some of the slack, but those programs are far more expensive than those offered by state-subsidized schools.

The state's system of vocational-technical schools is a vital component of the overall educational system. Excellent K-12 public schools are the first step. Public universities supply the research and degree programs needed by many future employees. But people who can perform the many important -- and well-paying -- technical jobs in today's employment market also are key to Kansas being able to attract high-tech companies and provide good jobs for its residents. It's time for the state to catch up with the times in that area.

Money will be tight in the 2000 session of the Kansas Legislature but investments in all areas of higher education will pay off handsomely for the state's future.

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