CTE programs expand, shake up local school districts

CTE programs expand, shake up local school districts

SCITUATE – In education debates, charter schools may be pit against the local public schools, but rarely local public schools against their own kind.

Now that’s beginning to change.

“There is tension among districts that is boiling over right now,” says Timothy Ryan of the Rhode Island Superintendent’s Association. Ryan is also a former superintendent of the Portsmouth district.

A large part of the tension results from money, money that is leaving some districts so fast that people refer to it as “bleeding.”

And the money is following programs that, until four years ago, were never heard of.

They exist under the umbrella of Rhode Island Department of Education approved Career and Technical Education programs, or CTE. And they focus on fields of science and technology that are new even for colleges, never mind a 9th-grader’s classroom.

These programs are what’s hitting the small town of Scituate hardest.

Educators are coming to Scituate libraries from other districts, say School Committee members, luring local students to go elsewhere. Kids are leaving the town’s educational system, in bigger numbers every year. They’re also racking up a pricey bill for Scituate, which has to pay to send the students to schools outside their own district.

Scituate High School resides in a town with a little over 10,000 residents and a small school budget. It churns out Ivy League accepted students every few years. But it is struggling to survive right now.

The town’s superintendent, high school principal, and School Committee is scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Career and technical education is the hot new phrase on the tips of every tongue in education, followed by praise or scorn. Or both.

Career and technical education is much like the traditional charter and vocational school curriculum. Both are meant to prepare students for the workplace and cultivate applicable career skills. Both operate on a lottery system of entry. Essentially, they were indistinguishable until 2012.

But in 2012, the Rhode Island Department of Education gave Local Education Agencies, meaning local public schools, the chance to not become charter schools, but to offer similarly hands-on exclusive programs. “Pop up” programs as one superintendent described them.

Except these programs aren’t like the cosmetology or automotive courses offered in the traditional charter schools the public has always known. This law allows LEAs to apply for RIDE certified CTE programs like Lincoln Public High School’s international business academy and design & engineering coursework. Now local schools like Lincoln can use that “RIDE certified CTE program” label to attract students from outside the district for its own lottery.

The “pop up” programs are also free of what some consider key regulations. There’s no cap placed on the amount of kids the program takes from each district. It could be 10 one year, 16 the next. There’s also no specific formula used to calculate the per-pupil cost charged to a home district. RIDE has told Scituate Supt. Lawrence Filippelli that they are working on creating a formula.

What this lack of regulation results in is the same kind of financial duress for schools that charter institutions have inflicted, according to numerous superintendents in the state.

Chariho Supt. Barry Ricci, Scituate Supt. Lawrence Filippelli, and former Portsmouth Supt. Ryan agreed changes need to be made regarding local education agencies and CTE programming.

According to Filippelli, the “bleeding” caused by other districts’ CTE programs goes like this:

• Students leave the town for an out-of-district school.

• Money gets sent to the outside district (some of which is the home district’s own state aid).

• The school population of the home district goes down.

• The state aid based on population size goes down.

• The course offerings (based on demand) go down.

Ponaganset High School is a real-life example of this process.

Ponaganset is located in Glocester, less than 10 miles from Scituate High School. But because it has RIDE certified CTE programs for in-demand science, technology, engineering, and math, it’s pulling more and more students from Scituate.

Scituate Supt. Filippelli said neighboring schools like Ponaganset High School ask every district, regardless of size and means, to pay the $18,190 tuition per pupil. The formula for how Ponaganset arrived at that tuition number either does not exist or is not publicly available. Last year, Scituate sent 16 students to Ponaganset alone, not including the other vocational/charter schools. And without a cap on the number of students leaving, it can never really know how many it will lose.

It also has to budget more for out-of-district tuitions than public schools with their own programs.

Smithfield High School is just a few miles from Scituate High School and has three CTE offerings. Smithfield budgeted a total of just $14,877 for out-of-district tuitions for the 2016-2017 school year. That same year, Scituate had to budget $271,498. While CTE offerings might not be a direct cause, it can be considered as a factor.

Cumberland High School, which offers students 27 Advanced Placement courses and has its own career pathway programs, does not have students attending out-of-district schools for their CTE programs often, said Principal Alan Tenreiro.

“Occasionally, we might have one student attend Woonsocket Career Tech,” said Tenreiro.

But even Cumberland is applying for a certified CTE program.

At a recent joint meeting between the Scituate budget committee and its School Committee, the problem was raised. Filippelli pitched that the district open its own CTE program in response.

For some Town Council members, who may have never even heard the term before, it seemed surprising. Here was a program dragging thousands of dollars and the brightest students from the district, and now the superintendent wanted to do the same?

But Filippelli assured them that the district either spends $261,000 – the cost of establishing a program – and hops on the CTE train, or it misses the ride and continues the cycle.

Indeed, some schools and individuals see no problem with the expansion of career and technical education programs. 

State education Commissioner Ken Wagner is the biggest proponent for the expansion of CTE programs in LEAs, coupled with an expansion in “school choice.”

Wagner is referring to the philosophy that students and their parents should have more say in where students attend school. Gov. Gina Raimondo has also voiced her support for the movement. School choice empowers students to attend institutions outside of their own district. They might choose to do so for various reasons – larger course offerings, more funding, and these increasing CTE programs. 

According to the governor’s workforce board website, as of September 2016, there were 23 districts offering RIDE-approved CTE programs in the state of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Department of Education website says: “CTE in Rhode Island is helping our state address key challenges – from student achievement to workforce development and from economic vitality to global competitiveness.” 

The rising popularity of school choice, partnered with CTE programs, is not a good combination for small districts, according to the education officials interviewed by The Valley Breeze & Observer. 

It was once the case that if a district offered its own CTE program, it did not have to allow a pupil to leave the district for another program that bears similarities. Two years ago, Wagner changed that.

When the Rhode Island education commissioner visited Scituate school district in January, Filippelli asked him about difficult transportation issues surrounding school choice and CTE expansion. The superintendent says Wagner told him that a $15 per ride would be cheaper than paying for a $300 school bus.

The commissioner is of the belief that student choice supersedes the district’s offerings, according to Ricci, Chariho’s superintendent. 

Currently, the Chariho school district is challenging RIDE in court over a disagreement related to CTE program expansion and unfulfilled department promises.

In 2010, RIDE asked Chariho to take over an existing technical center in its district. Since the building needed repair, Ricci says, he asked the state to update the structure first.

According to the superintendent, the most major repairs were never completed and the district had to run a program under difficult circumstances.

Ricci asked RIDE to promise not to establish competing programs in the area. When he met with the commissioner, Ricci said he was told, “I have no intention of honoring that agreement.”

Ricci believes that dogged push toward expansion needs some limitations, as with the Chariho situation. When a competing cosmetology program opened nearby, Chariho’s own program closed. 

With no sliding scale, caps, or state assistance for funding students who attend CTE programs out of district, there’s inequality of a different kind brewing between LEAs.

East Providence High School projected an increase of more than $100,000 for their 2016-2017 tuition revenue from outside districts. In Ponaganset’s 2016-2017 budget, the school anticipated a tuition earnings increase of over half a million. 

It does not sit well with other local public schools that what Ponaganset and East Providence describe as a “net increase,” schools like Scituate refer to as “bleeding.” 

Ryan, of the Rhose Island Superintendent’s Association, said the disconcerted districts like Chariho and Scituate really have two key demands:

• A consistent funding model for sending students to these career prep schools.

• A regulation that provides some power to the district in preventing students from attending out-of-district schools if the home district offers a comparable program. 

Christine Lopes Metcalfe, chief of staff and policy director for the office of the Rhode Island education commissioner, said schools can apply to a CTE Trust to either start a new program or expand existing ones. She also said that RIDE has awarded CTE categorical funding to “incubate the development of new programs.”

The RIDE website says schools can apply for up to $50,000 in funding for CTE programs. The trust is most likely unable to fully fund the genesis of a program, as Scituate is allocating $261,000 for its own CTE program.

“RIDE is currently working with school and district leaders to develop both short-term and long-term solutions to support out-of-district career and technical education,” said the chief of staff in an email to The Valley Breeze & Observer.