Ariz. Businesses Offer Schools a Deal: Higher Taxes for Reforms in Voc. Ed.
By Lonnie Harp
Leading Arizona business executives are volunteering for higher taxes to pay for vocational-education programs like the one that sent Jeanne Milstein back to the hospital this summer.
Ms. Milstein, a health-careers instructor at a Phoenix high school, was one of more than 40 participants in an innovative effort to upgrade the skills of vocational-education teachers by enabling them to spend time in the jobs for which they are preparing their students.
Working in the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center's women-and-infant-services department, she said, will alter her lessons for students aiming to become nursing assistants.
"I'm emphasizing more communication with families because now you have to treat the patient and all of the members of the family as well,'' Ms. Milstein observed. "Ordinarily, we give all of our attention to the babies, but now the emphasis is more on looking at the family unit."
Ms. Milstein's on-the-job retraining was just one of a number of pilot projects that would be expanded statewide under a unique tax and reform proposal currently being developed by an Arizona business group.
In exchange for higher business taxes to pay for the new programs, the proposal also would give the business community greater influence over issues ranging from integrated academic and vocational curricula to teacher certification.
Organizers of the business campaign and top state education officials are scheduled to formally present their tax and reform strategies next month. While the proposed structure of the new tax will not be put into final form until January, officials say they are looking for first-year tax revenues of $8 million, climbing to $40 million after five years.
The business leaders are studying both an employer surtax and a levy added to unemployment insurance. The funds would be used to expand such initiatives as a new teacher-certification process, technology-oriented programs for dropouts, links between high-school and community-college curricula, and distance learning.
The executives have pledged to lobby for the plan, and the required dollar-for-dollar state match, when the legislature convenes in January.
At Odds With Other Reforms?
The programs included in the plan incorporate many of the most popular themes of recent vocational-education reform debates. But some experts have pointed out that the business officials' relatively narrow focus on specific job-related programs contrasts with other efforts to target school-business partnerships on long-term improvements in entire school systems.
The Arizona plan's hefty role for state administrators also appears to be at odds with the federal effort, embodied in legislation cleared by the Congress this month, to shift vocational-education funding and decisionmaking away from state offices and toward local schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 19, 1990.)
But Arizona business and education officials argue that, given a tight state budget, their tax plan offers the best chance for taking proven vocational-education programs beyond the present pilot and demonstration stages and launching a concerted drive to upgrade the state's workforce.
"They're saying the economic success of our state depends on this," said Jack Michie, a former director of Michigan's vocational-education system who now works as a part-time faculty member at Arizona State University.
"The business community went in and said, 'This is pretty damned important. These programs are providing a trained workforce,"' added Mr. Michie, who is currently working with the state education department on the reform proposals.
The expansion plans for Arizona's vocational-education system come at a time when the program would otherwise face an uncertain future. The new federal vocational-education measure is expected to cut the $14 million now available for statewide programs by $4 million, and the state is facing major problems with its overall budget as well.
Business Takes Charge
Business backers of the tax plan said they were convinced of the promise of pilot programs under way around the state and determined to take charge of a crucial element of their economic future.
"There are some programs in place that we're very pleased with, but now we are seeing the need for dollars, especially at a time when there is no assurance from Arizona--or any other state--that these programs are going to be funded now the same as they have in the past," said Thomas W. Davidson, president of the Davidson Association, a Phoenix-based personnel-consulting firm. "Business just said, 'We're going to do this ourselves."'
"It would take an incredible shakeup of the state budget to get what we need," added Harry Hollack, a manufacturing-division manager for the Intel Corporation and founder of the Arizona Business Coalition, the group that will coordinate the tax campaign.
Expanding such efforts would at least begin to quell business leaders' complaints about the poor skills of today's entry-level workers, argue abc organizers, many of whom serve on the vocational- and technological-education committee of the state board of education.
The reform plan focuses on updating competency levels for vocational students, improving basic education levels, and boosting youths' work readiness, said Mr. Davidson, who added that the plan reflects business leaders' frustrations with student's skill levels and policymakers' inability to implement a solution.
"It's couched in all the proper terms and courtesies," he observed, "and it needs to be said that we are clearly working within the system."
The business leaders began their push for expanded vocational reforms by backing a $2-million bill signed by Gov. Rose Mofford this summer. The bill permits vocational programs to begin in the 7th rather than the 9th grade, allows the state to enlarge some of its pilot programs, and establishes a state board for vocational education on which 7 of the 12 members are representatives of industry.
The bill also set in motion consideration of the tax plan.
One of the initiatives expanded by the bill signed by Governor Mofford was a pilot program designed to update vocational teachers, which was to become the centerpiece of a statewide three-year recertification mandate attached to the tax plan.
The recertification process, which would be required of all vocational-education teachers, would complement a revised initial certification, under which potential teachers would be required to pass competency tests both in instructional techniques and in the trade or subject area in which they planned to teach.
The reform plans also include concentrated inservice training for the expanded pilot efforts.
The pilot program was the one that brought Ms. Milstein, who teaches at Metrotech Vocational Institute, to Good Samaritan.
Besides giving her a first-hand feel for the latest in medical technology and philosophy, Ms. Milstein said, her work in the hospital's central-supply office has allowed her to better answer questions about medical equipment. Her contacts also will help her in steering students toward jobs.
"Just when you think you've burned out, you go back and learn so much that it really recharges your batteries," she said.
Just as added contact with the world of work can rekindle teachers' enthusiasm, Mr. Michie observed, gearing classrooms more toward practical skills and real-life jobs motivates students.
"I'm very excited when I see the kind of capture we have on kids, and especially at-risk kids, because if you can capture them, you know you can turn the rest of the kids on to it," he said. "I took some of the business people out to see the pilot programs and they got so excited about it because they saw what the kids were doing."
"The problem we've had for years is that we weren't willing to recognize the ability kids have, and we have tended to thwart their abilities by saying, 'Kids can't do this,"' Mr. Michie continued. "They are soaking it up like sponges and suddenly they are turned on."
The programs' success also has had an effect on business leaders, said Senator Jacque Steiner, chairman of the Senate education committee.
"We had business leaders at the ceo level going in to help design the reform bill and lobby it through the process," she said. "It's moving from a lip-service approach to a very active, constructive, and forceful approach to reform."
Answering an 'Age-Old' Problem
Observers said last week that the reform strategy being studied in Arizona could provide vocational educators throughout the nation with an answer to the longtime dilemma of finding the means to expand innovative pilot programs.
"It seems to be an age-old problem, and we've still yet to really tackle it," said Fritz Edelstein, senior fellow at the Center for Excellence in Education of the National Alliance of Business. "I think there's frustration out there about replication and building a process that allows for and creates opportunities for replications."
Sue Berryman, director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the Arizona plan takes an important step by requiring teachers to become more familiar with industry.
"Generally, there's a real divorce between the world of school and the world of work, and, in education, that's really a devastating issue," she said.
Business leaders' solid interest in vocational students' skills also marks a significant change, Ms. Berryman said.
"Employers usually do not invest much training in the less-educated, and that's generally the vocational-education crowd," she noted. "In that sense, it's an important redistribution. If it came about, it would say something about employers being willing to train people they don't emphasize that much."
"What's exciting is that they're really trying to produce systemic change," Ms. Berryman continued. "We've seen so much of a program here and a program there, but it's the system that's in such bad shape."
Barbara Border, Arizona's vocational-education director, agreed. The fate of the business-tax proposal, she predicted, will set the tone for progress in the state's vocational-education system.
"If it does not pass, we could not continue all of our pilot programs," she said. "I believe vocational education is somewhere frozen between the industrial age and the technological age, and unless there is an infusion of dollars to redo the setting and redo teachers' skills, we're not going to be able to provide our population base with the skills that are needed for the technological age."
"We have to take what we have and upgrade it to provide what is needed for this new age," Ms. Border added. "Industries are stressing that time is very short."
Selling the Plan
While educators and business officials alike have pinned their hopes on the tax plan's passage, Mr. Hollack of Intel said the abc still must organize the state's business community and build enough support to win matching funds from the legislature.
"There's a heck of a sales job to do. But people, once they know what we're doing, tend to support it," he said. "Actually, it's not so much a sales job as an education job."
But many business people are waiting to hear about the specifics of the tax plan before taking a stand on the issue, explained Howard Alexander, a vice president of the state chamber of commerce. "We're anxious to see what comes out of it," he said.
Senator Steiner said it was also too early to gauge support for the idea among lawmakers.
"It's too soon to tell whether there is broad-based support and a unified effort on the part of business," she said. "Taxes are always controversial and it's more difficult now than ever, but they seem to be very committed to the idea that this is what is needed."
Business officials are optimistic that they can win enough support to get the plan started, said Jere J. Brommer, senior vice president of Valley National Corporation of Phoenix.
"It must prove itself, and if it proves itself, that should grease the skids," he said. "You hear bawling about education in every nook and cranny across the country. This is something that is very focused and specific, and there's no reason why it won't work. Teachers should be happy, legislators should be happy and business should be happy."