Arizona lawmakers may temporarily halt a burgeoning 12-year-old program that allows the creation of special vocational school districts. The districts have grown steadily, but critics say the initiatives have become a financial burden the state may no longer be able to afford.
Legislation being debated at the state Capitol would put a two-year moratorium on the expansion or formation of additional job-training hubs, known as joint technological education districts.
Several legislators say they want to study the program's price tag and whether the vocational schools are truly providing high school students with additional skills, given the extra funding they reap from the state.
"It's important for the state to take a breather on this, and see how the financing is working," said Michael E. Hunter, the vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, a Phoenix-based watchdog group. "We have to look at whether the schools that are receiving funding are offering students any better resources."
Lawmakers say the fate of a bill to establish a two-year ban is uncertain. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Laura Knaperek, a Republican who is the chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, stalled in a Senate committee and may not pass this session. The bill's supporters have suggested they will seek approval for the moratorium by placing it in next year's budget.
But the vocational districts have plenty of backers. They say Arizona should do everything possible to allow the schools to thrive.
"Not all high school graduates are going to go on to major colleges or universities after they leave," said Sen. Peter Rios, a Democrat. "They're looking for a salable skill, a trade, or a craft. A moratorium that would prohibit, or restrict, this kind of activity—I would oppose it."
Joint technological education districts were established in Arizona in 1990. Eight districts have been created so far. At least one more has been proposed, and several school districts hope to join with an existing program in northern Arizona.
The districts were designed to offer high school students specialized courses in subjects such as health services, engineering, and computer technology, and prepare them for jobs that don't necessarily require a college degree. Statewide, about 4,000 students attend the vocational districts.
The program allows several school districts to send students to the same vocational district. Some of the vocational centers are on existing school campuses; others are separate facilities. Students enrolled in the technology schools spend only part of each day there.
The vocational districts receive a combination of per-student funding from the state and money raised locally through special taxes on residents in participating school districts. Voters in those school districts seeking to use the technology schools have to agree to pay the special tax.
But because students attend their regular high schools part of the day, and the vocational programs part time, the state ends up paying per-student costs to support both programs. More money goes to fund a single student taking vocational courses, some legislators have noted.
As more of the technological districts have formed around Arizona, the state's financial burden has soared. Since 1998, state funding for the special districts has jumped from $3.9 million to an estimated $14 million in fiscal 2002.
Others complain that some of the vocational districts have strayed from the program's original goals. The districts were designed to be stand-alone campuses, allowing different schools to pool their resources, some critics say.
Critics say that too often, new vocational districts are simply created on existing high school campuses, which allows them to draw extra state money with few, if any, extra benefits for students.
Sam Polito, a lobbyist for the East Valley Institute of Technology in Mesa, which has a separate campus, said he could support a two-year moratorium but not a longer ban. "We can live with that," said Mr. Polito, who also represents a number of Tuscon school districts thinking of setting up their own technology program.
The technology districts' supporters point to success stories such as the East Valley Institute, which serves 2,500 high school students from 10 school districts.
Students can choose from among 35 programs in areas ranging from commercial art and law enforcement to cosmetology. Area businesses—particularly in the growing health-care industry—were major backers of the program, said Lynn Strang, a spokeswoman for East Valley.
"They have a need for well-trained students right out of high school," Ms. Strang said. "They're constantly looking for employees."
Kelly Magruder, 18, a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa, drives to the East Valley vocational campus each afternoon for more than two hours of classwork in engineering technology.
Next year, Mr. Magruder plans to study electrical engineering at Arizona State University. His classmates have a lot of options, too, he said.
"Some of them end up going to jobs at Intel and Motorola right away," Mr. Magruder said.