Rep. Ed DeLaney: Can our Legislature do 2 things at once? Maybe.

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Ed DeLaneyThe majority in our Indiana Legislature has focused on two societal developments in recent years. The first is a long-term decline in our support for career and technical education. This used to be called “vocational training” or “shop.” While there are many great CTE programs around the state, there has been a reduced emphasis for years. The second phenomenon that has been noticed is the growing concern over student debt among those who do go on to higher education.

The important question affecting our future economy is whether the Legislature is capable of addressing both concerns. We are seeing movement in the direction of dealing with both problems, and in a positive fashion.

It is clear that substantial funding and attention will be devoted to improving career and technical education. In 2023, the Legislature created a series of mechanisms to improve the financing of and participation in CTE at the high school level. The rollout has been somewhat clumsy, but the commitment is firm. In 2024, we are moving toward a similar expansion of support for CTE after high school.

In the recent past, there has been an unfortunate tendency to advocate for career and technical education by pointing to the woes of higher education. The college path has been caricatured as a debt trap, where students are led into a lifetime of debt by professors and bureaucrats. In fact, students at state and not-for-profit colleges earn well and can handle the debt that some incur. Interesting work and solid compensation should be the goal for all our young people.

It is apparent that the Legislature supports increasing attendance in colleges and universities. There is no other explanation for our decision in 2023 to ramp up our scholarship programs for lower- and middle-income students. We are trying to increase college enrolment. It has fallen from some 65% to approximately 53% of high-schoolers in recent years. Our 21st Century Scholars program and Frank O’Bannon grants provide serious financial resources to students at public and private colleges in the state. We have funded them at substantial levels for years. This commitment needs to grow and has been solid until this session of the Legislature.

The near-term problem is funding. If the post-high-school CTE program is to be rolled out immediately, there is a budgetary dilemma. It was not included in last year’s biennial budget, and the Legislature does not like to “reopen” the budget in the year of the short session. So the suggestion was made that we tap the funds supporting the 21st century scholars and the O’Bannon grants to fund an immediate beginning for the post-high-school CTE programs.

If the Legislature were to do this, it would set up a direct conflict between funding for higher education and for post-high-school career education. Such a competition would undercut the notion that we need both programs working well. I have worked with Rep. Chuck Goodrich, who is the leader on career education, to slow things down so we can make the funding determination in next year’s budget. This would also have the benefit of allowing a smoother and well-thought-out introduction of a new series of post-high-school vocational programs.

If we continue to cooperate and to create honest competition between two forms of post-high-school education, we can get a lot done. We can turn the buzz about “workforce development” into a system where Indiana is favored with large numbers of college graduates and large numbers of people whose careers and lives were advanced by CTE.

If bipartisan cooperation continues, we can show that Indiana can do two things at once, and do them well.•

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DeLaney, an Indianapolis attorney, is a Democrat representing the 86th District in the Indiana House of Representatives. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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