It has been nearly a month since Governor Wolf delivered his budget address for the upcoming fiscal year, and while I may not agree with all of the proposals in his 2018-19 budget, there was one item that particularly stood out as being a timely and necessary investment – the PA Smart initiative.
Designed as a workforce training and development initiative for grades K-12, PA Smart will divide $50 million in funding between STEM and computer science education ($40 million) and the promotion of apprenticeships and industry partnerships ($10 million).
Few will disagree that Pennsylvania’s education system is and has been in desperate need of modernization. However, we must ensure that we are not simply throwing money at a problem without being strategic in regards to what particular programs we are financially supporting.
By prioritizing funding for both computer science / STEM education and career / technical education (CTE), we are acknowledging that the skills learned through these course offerings are critical to developing a strong workforce and a healthy economy in Pennsylvania. In other words, they are our future.
In direct opposition to that notion, however, is the fact that far too many students are being pushed towards traditional colleges as their only viable path after graduation. While choosing to attend college is certainly laudable – and for many, it is the right choice – we must make it clear to our students that it is not the only choice.
Career and technical education, apprenticeships, and trade schools are practical alternatives to traditional colleges that provide students with an opportunity to excel in industries for which a traditional college may not be able to adequately prepare them.
Additionally, to assume that all students and their families can afford the skyrocketing prices that many traditional colleges are charging these days is to ignore the reality that students are being saddled with massive monthly loan payments while simultaneously struggling to find a job to support their mounting debt.
To that end, further investment in K-12 career and technical education will prepare our students for the modern workforce.
In fact, it seems that every time I speak with industry leaders about this issue, they express concern that the pool of highly trained candidates who are qualified to join the workforce for trades, skilled labor, and other similar vocations, is dwindling.
I believe that we need to meet this demand with deliberate policy decisions that will not only encourage but also enable students to pursue successful careers in these vital industries – Pennsylvania’s future depends on it.
To be clear, both arms of the Governor’s proposal – CTE funding and computer science and STEM education funding – have the potential to lead students to occupations that are in high demand.
In fact, according to code.org, Pennsylvania currently has 17,787 vacant computing jobs, which is nearly three times the average demand rate for states. Why not fill these 17,787 vacancies in Pennsylvania businesses with students trained and prepared in our Pennsylvania schools?
In stark contrast to the demand for these jobs is the fact that only 206 schools in Pennsylvania (26% of schools in the state that offer AP courses) offered an AP Computer Science course in the 2016-2017 school year.
Further, Pennsylvania does not require that all secondary schools offer some form of computer science education, despite the fact that computing occupations are the number one source of all new wages nationwide, and that they make up over half of all projected new jobs in STEM fields.
Simply put, the numbers strongly suggest that Pennsylvania must develop its computer science education curriculum or risk falling behind in an industry that is rapidly becoming the dominant influence in our culture – and the dominant employer.
Additionally, I am proud of the innovative work already being done in our Lancaster County schools as we lead the way by making technical education, coding, and computer science available to our students. The Pennsylvania General Assembly must do more to support these important efforts both in Lancaster County and across our Commonwealth.
To be sure, PA Smart isn’t just about improving K-12 educational opportunities throughout the Commonwealth – it’s about increasing job growth, boosting our economy, and attracting businesses like Amazon to build in our state, hire in our state, and spend in our state. It’s about cultivating a better future for Pennsylvania. And it all begins with a strong foundation in relevant coursework in our public school system.
In short, I am thrilled at the prospect that our Commonwealth may finally be moving in a direction that recognizes that an investment in CTE, STEM, and computer science education is, indeed, an investment in Pennsylvania’s future.