Sunnyside High School

Real work experience is the whole point of JTED. Above, Danielle Baca, 18, conducts an experiment in her BioScience 1 class at Sunnyside High.

We have some teens in the Tucson area getting extra education in veterinary science, others studying engineering, and still others going into cosmetology and physical therapy.

They’re among dozens of specialized, career-oriented fields of study offered by the Pima County Joint Technical Education District, a concept Arizona voters embraced in 2006. Some of the programs are intended to lead directly from high school to jobs; others give students a head-start on college. In Pima County, more than 15,000 students are enrolled.

Students in these programs have a fantastic graduation rate: 98 percent statewide for JTED students, compared to 76 percent for all high school students.

This is an immensely popular program, funded largely by taxes we pay to the state, but also by property taxes. And it is in danger of dying, thanks to changes in the way the program is funded, changes passed in the middle of the night by the Legislature last year.

They would cut about $30 million starting next school year but also create what some have called a “death spiral” of lower funding leading to fewer students, leading to still lower funding.

Now, legislators are lining up to correct that: Sen. Don Shooter, a Yuma Republican, has got 72 of the state’s 90 legislators to support the idea of reversing the changes. Even before Gov. Doug Ducey‘s budget came out Monday, Republican legislators like Tucson’s Rep. Chris Ackerley were introducing bills to fully restore funding and fix the formula.

But in an unexpected twist, Ducey said in his proposed budget that he doesn’t want to restore that funding. He has his own idea, putting him at odds even with some of his most devoted supporters.

On Monday, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to all legislators, signed by more than 30 chambers of commerce, as well as statewide education groups, asking for the funding to be restored. That’s something, because the Arizona Chamber has been almost sycophantic in its support of the Republican governor.

Ducey’s budget does make reference to $30 million for JTED, as the program is called. But that’s actually a $10-million-a-year grant program, as the governor’s top budget adviser, Lorenzo Romero, explained this past week.

“The recommendation is a new program,” he said in an answer to Sen. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat. “It is a $30 million one-time appropriated program. It’s not restoring those cuts.”

It’s not just that Ducey does not want to restore the cuts that’s disturbing. It’s also this: The money would be handed out by the Governor’s Office on Education. In other words, Ducey’s people would pick who wins and who loses these grants.

Then there’s this: The grants would go “to JTEDs that work to partner with business and industry to produce graduates in high-demand employment sectors that will most benefit the local region.”

This is a matching program, in which a JTED would be required to get buy-in from businesses or industry groups in order to win a grant from the governor.

Via email I asked some questions about the governor’s approach of Dawn Wallace, Ducey’s education policy advisor. She said the governor “believes targeted investment maximizes into career and technical education programs that serve the highest demand employment sector is key.”

The idea, she went on, is “to encourage business and industry to partner with career and technical education programs to fill the vacant high- to mid-skill positions needed for industries such as manufacturing, technology, allied health, energy, etc.”

Businesses could offer money or in-kind contributions in order to match state grants, she said.

An argument for this kind of arrangement, I imagine, would be that the students entering the grant-winning programs would have more direct job prospects in fields that also benefit local business more directly. A “real win-win,” as people say.

“I understand the intention of what he’s trying to do,” Ackerley said in an interview. “However, the reality is that I don’t think there will be many instances where somebody else outside of the school systems is going to foot half the cost of these programs.”

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Other downsides are also apparent.

One is — why should we give this power to the Governor’s Office? Not only that — why should there be a Governor’s Office on Education at all? As Farley pointed out to me, the state Board of Education and Education Department already have a hard time getting along, without a new statewide education overseer getting involved.

Wallace, by the way, said the governor’s education office is not new, is similar to offices in other states, and works well with existing state education entities.

But most important, perhaps, there’s this: The $10 million per year Ducey proposes does not fix the downward spiral the Legislature put in place last year.

The funding formula problem is complex enough that it’s tough to grasp. But the key parts are that the home schools of students who also attend JTED classes would no longer get as much money for those students and would be able to supplant the funding that would otherwise go to the JTED programs.

The upshot: It discourages schools from participating in JTED programs.

“The JTEDs have to scale back their programs, which causes them to lose enrollment, which causes them to lose funding,” Ackerley said.

That’s the problem that needs to be solved, as almost everybody agrees, from right to left. There is plenty of money to solve it — simply doing the smart thing and dropping the governor’s $31 million “border strike force” would more than pay to save the JTED system.

How the problem is resolved will say a lot about who holds the power in Phoenix and Arizona — and what they really want to use it for.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.