By Carol Kozma, State House correspondent
The traditional route from high school to college to white collar job is taking a detour for some Massachusetts families. But as interest in learning a trade at the state’s vocational-technical schools rises, so do concerns among educators and legislators about the impact on school funding.
According to Department of Education data 42,669 students were enrolled in vocational tech schools in 2003, learning trades in addition to traditional college prep academics. Enrollment rose to 45,720 this year.
Although Roger Hatch, the department’s administrator of school finance programs said the increase itself isn’t significant, the number does not include the increase in applications to vocational schools.
Some voc-tech schools have had to turn students away because they cannot raise enrollment due to the higher costs of vocational programs.
David Fiandaca, director of the Center for Technical Education at Leominster High School said an increase in the number of applications at his school reflects changing attitudes to vocational education.
“In the past vocational school was for students who could not handle (school) academically,” Fiandaca said.
Fiandaca said this year about 130 freshman students are taking a “tech awareness” class, in which they rotate from one vocational trade to another, to explore their options.
Their sophomore year, students choose the vocation to follow. But Fiandaca said the school has to turn down about 50 students who must transfer back into the traditional public high school.
“We don’t have the space, or the instructors, by recommendation of the state. Especially the ones with heavy equipment, safety factor is paramount to anything else,” Fiandaca said.
Technical vocational schools typically have higher budgets to cover the costs of materials needed to teach carpentry, plumbing and other trades. Class sizes are smaller to provide the necessary one-on-one training.
“Our operating budget is larger than a regular comprehensive high school because how are we going to buy all the wood for carpentry school?” said Sheila Harrity, principal of Worcester Technical High School.
She said the school also keeps the student-teacher ratio low.
“The state recommendation for welding or carpentry is 15 (students) to one (teacher), we try to keep it below that because we don’t want any of our students to get hurt,” Harrity said.
The trend toward more expensive voc-tech enrollment has raised questions about its impact on school funding.
The Legislature uses a funding formula to set a foundation budget – the minimum cost for a student’s basic education – for public schools.
Hatch said the foundation budget for traditional schools and vocational schools takes into account the larger expenses of vocational schools. “For the fiscal year 2014 schools, the foundation rate for a vocational school is $12,894 and that compares to a senior high (traditional public school) $8,456,” he said.
Because of the disparity, there is a move to study how different types of schools are funded. The result could mean a change in the state’s funding formula, Chapter 70.
Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, has proposed a bill that would balance the differences in funding for traditional public schools and vocational schools. Garry said Dracut’s charter and vocational schools get funds first, and public schools receive leftovers.
“Basically my ultimate aim is to get more equity between vocational schools and traditional public schools,” she said. “What I have seen is that the traditional schools are always last.”
Garry said she understands that vocational schools have a higher base budget because of costs for materials and salaries, but she wants to make sure that if a vocational school gets a 1 percent increase in funds, the traditional public school gets an equal percent increase.
Garry called her bill a conversation starter; she said she would be open to discuss better ways of ensuring equity in budgets.
Some educators say a single path to equity will be difficult to establish because Chapter 70 funds are distributed differently from district to district.
“The way the money comes to the school varies based on the ability of the school to pay the bill,” said David Ferreira, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators.
Ferreira said that community with higher property values and higher income per-capita such as Newton, provide most of the foundation budget through property taxes.
Fitchburg, with a lower per-capita income and property tax base relies more on the state to fill its foundation budget.
The funding issue becomes more complicated when voc-technical schools are part of a school district that includes college prep high schools.
Maureen Binienda, principal at South High Community School, a traditional school in Worcester said because the technical school and the public school are in the same district, the money received from the state is distributed to all the schools in that district.
If a vocational school is part of the public school district, as is the case for Worcester Technical High School, the state sends Chapter 70 funds to the Worcester school committee, said Lauren Greene, spokesperson at the department of education. The committee then approves all budgets for all schools in that district.
Binienda said she did not feel that the vocational technical school was taking money away from her school.
“We always need more money,” she said.
The total budget for South High Community was $8,749,443 for the 2011-2012 academic year with an enrollment of 1,337 students. Worcester Technical High School had a budget of $13,157,236 for 1,366 students.
Ferreira said the increased interest in vocational schools has a variety of reasons.
Generally, vocational schools also have low dropout rates, high attendance rates and high graduation rates, Ferreira said.
Vocational schools have a history of high assessment rates. The education department ranks schools on five levels using graduation and dropout rates among other indicators. The highest performing schools are rated at Level One; the lowest performance is set at Level Five.
This year out of 26 regional vocational school districts in the state, 19 were rated as Level One, four schools were Level Two, and three schools Level Three. This does not include the vocational schools that are part of the public school district.
“The success, I think in a large way, is about motivating kids and teaching them why academics are important,” Ferreira said, noting that students may be more interested in learning trigonometry if it can be applied to methods of cutting textiles in their manufacturing classes.
“The kids are very engaged in education because now they understand the importance of the academics,” he said.
Ferreira said students can explore fields they might want to work in, and once they graduate, they can choose to work, or attend college.
But before they go on, vocational-technical students can put their skills to use for their communities. Students in the carpentry program at the Leominster school are currently refurbishing the Office of Emergency Management in Leominster, and students in the plumbing program are installing a new industrial kitchen in the Spanish American Center.
“We are constantly giving back to the community and thereby justifying our existence,” Fiandaca said.