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House Republicans begin high school curriculum overhaul push

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Education and workforce advocates on Wednesday clashed over whether a high school curriculum bill would divert needed funding from public school vocational programs.

The bill in question would require high school students to meet with an employer or a labor organization at least once during their junior and senior years of high school to discuss career options and educational requirements. Students could take internships or apprenticeships for credit toward high school graduation. It also would set up a career scholarship account program for which an employer could receive $1,000 and the school would receive $500. The measure is a signature piece for Republicans this legislative session, and Gov. Eric Holcomb has previously said he is “of one mind” with GOP lawmakers on the idea.

Bill sponsor Rep. Chuck Goodrich, a Noblesville Republican, said the bill would give the state a way to address the so-called skills gap, defined as the mismatch between the skills high school graduates possess and the skills employers are looking for. He said some of the programs the bill contains have already been implemented, but the state needs more and at a larger scale.

“The state high school graduation rate remains below the national average, and many of our students are not receiving the training that they need to succeed in our workforce,” he said.

State employment data show an unusually tight labor market. As of November, the most recent month for which data is available, there were 0.5 potential workers per job opening, the lowest such ratio since at least December 2000, though a slight improvement from this summer.

Jason Bearce, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce‘s vice president for education and workforce development, said 83% of employers in Indiana say finding job candidates who fit their needs is a challenge.

Rick Wadja, chief executive officer of Indiana Builders Association, said the construction industry, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the state, expects to lose half of its workforce to retirement over the next 15 years, exacerbating an already-existing worker shortage.

Democrats on the committee pounced on the bill’s career scholarship account program, claiming it would divert funding from public schools and lead to the state underwriting companies’ job training programs. When they pressed Goodrich for details, he told them the finer points of how funding would be distributed are still being worked out. He said any funding would only be distributed to the accounts if a student successfully completed a work-based learning program.

John Hurley, a vocational teacher at a high school in Rockport, told the committee he feared the bill as it is currently drafted would limit his ability to work with students who are otherwise at risk of dropping out or not continuing on to some kind of postsecondary vocational training. He later told News 8 nearly half of the students at his high school enroll in his vocational classes, which range from agribusiness to welding and carpentry.

“If those introductory programs are not there at all and it’s been undercut by that funding being taken away, you do not get those students at the beginning of their high school careers,” he said. “A lot of times, that interest won’t be spurred for those students that may not have looked at this earlier.”

Hurley said he agrees with the bill’s intentions, a sentiment echoed by several public education advocacy groups that testified at Wednesday’s hearing, but lawmakers would be better off providing additional resources to existing vocational programs at traditional public schools. He said his school already has a good working relationship with local trade unions and the bill could change their relationship from a collaborative one to a competitive one.

The bill has not yet received a committee vote. House Education Committee chair Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, said he anticipated amendments and a vote next week.