High school students may soon be able to earn vocational diplomas to help them find jobs right out of twelfth grade under a new bill receiving mixed reviews from educators and employers.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Mark Radcliffe, D-Black River Falls, and co-sponsored by Rep. Michelle Litjens, R-Oshkosh, would allow public high schools to award special diplomas to students who complete alternative programs emphasizing vocational subjects, such as welding or nursing.
Supporters say the bill would create a path to employment for students not planning to attend college.
Critics worry the bill could lead schools to lower the bar for some students to graduate.
Creating a new path to graduation has the potential to confuse parents and employers about what skills a student actually learned said Cecil Streeter, a former school counselor and the current coordinator for the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce’s Partners in Education Council.
"There already are alternative diplomas, high school equivalency diplomas, which are great for some students. But those are still based on academics," he said.
But employers are hungry for more trained workers and open to new programs that encourage youth to consider a career in a skilled trade.
"If the bill gets more kids interested in skilled trades, then absolutely it can have a good impact on our business and manufacturing in general," said Dan Hietpas, president of Muza Metal Products in Oshkosh. "Without question there is a shortage of skilled labor, and it’s getting worse and worse every year."
The state Assembly’s education committee held a hearing on the bill last week, and revisions are expected to address concerns that school districts might not require the same number of credits for vocational diplomas as they do for traditional diplomas. State law requires students to earn 13 credits in math, English, science, social studies, physical education and health in order to graduate.
The intent of the bill is to allow students to substitute traditional classes for vocational classes in the same subject, Litjens said. For example, a student could study technical writing or computer literacy instead of English literature.
The bill would not require schools to offer vocational diplomas, but if they chose to do so, the vocational curriculum would need approval by the state Department of Public Instruction.
"You hear from businesses that they consistently have job openings but don’t have people trained for the jobs," Litjens said. "We cannot continue to educate in this college-for-all mentality, because not every student is going to pursue a four-year degree. We need to make sure we’re preparing our kids for a job tomorrow."
Technology and engineering teacher Chris Arps agrees that technical training is critical for many jobs today. But, "from what I see and what I’m hearing from other teachers, this bill isn’t going to get the job done," he said.
Many teachers are concerned the bill would create confusion because diploma standards could vary from district to district, Arps said, adding that many districts, including Oshkosh, already partner with local technical colleges to provide vocational training to high schoolers.
Oshkosh school district administrators, on the other hand, expressed some level of openness to the concept of vocational diplomas.
"Anything that’s good for kids, expands opportunities and is innovative we certainly are in support of," said Holly Rottier, the district’s director for school improvement. "But we still don’t know enough about the vocational diplomas themselves. We really haven’t had enough time to research it."