Ag education backers fight for grant program

03/18/2014 8:42 PM

03/18/2014 8:43 PM

A Merced County educator told lawmakers Tuesday about the value of a well-trained welder.

Alan Peterson, principal at Atwater High School, urged the Senate Agriculture Committee to reject Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to end a grant program for ag education. He said the investment of about $4.1 million a year pays off in young people prepared for careers.

“We have students who make $20 an hour the week after they graduate,” Peterson said. “Why? Because our shop teacher is known as an outstanding welding instructor.”

He and other supporters of the grant program said most ag students do not live on farms, but they still benefit from training in public speaking, engine repair and other skills. And a few students said the classes, along with closely related FFA activities, have kept them out of trouble.

“I listened and I got this jacket, and it means a lot to me,” said Galt High School student Julian Parra, referring to FFA’s familiar blue uniform. “I think this saved me from being with gangs.”

The committee took no action at the hearing, which was streamed online from the Capitol, but Chairwoman Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, made clear that she supports the grants. Her district takes in Salida, Riverbank and most of Modesto.

At issue is the Agricultural Career Technical Education Incentive grant program. Schools can use it to cover half the cost of ag education expenses – such as equipment, field trips and FFA conferences – but not teacher pay. The $4.1 million works out to an average of about $13,500 for each of the 305 high schools that can apply.

Brown’s proposal is part of his effort to drastically change how schools are funded. Much more money would be used as district boards see fit, rather than earmarked by the state for certain uses. The change coincides with a recovery in the state’s overall budget after several years of cuts.

Kimberly Leahy, who works on education funding at the California Department of Finance, defended the proposal to end the grants. She said districts that value ag education could provide the same money via the new “local-control funding formula.”

Natasha Collins, a fiscal and policy analyst at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, agreed. “The state is providing more money to high schools now, and these monies can be directed to these purposes,” she said.

Supporters of the program said it sends a message that California values agriculture, an important driver of the economy, especially in the Central Valley. They said the local-control formula is no guarantee that ag ed will get the funding it needs to keep up with technological changes in farming and other fields.

The program, established in 1983, “created a renaissance in ag education,” said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers Association.

Speakers from Atwater High said ag classes serve more than 900 students and have helped the school succeed in spite of low incomes for many families and other challenges.

“It encourages kids and a culture where they graduate with confidence and a direction in life,” ag teacher Dave Gossman said.

Luz Hernandez, another ag student from Galt, said the classes have kept her from hanging out with the wrong people. She said she hopes for a career in the flower business.

“My current floriculture teacher, she has shown me so much,” Luz said. “She’s like a mom to me.”

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