Dan Walters: State Fair shows California’s youthful talent, but for how long?

07/20/2014 12:00 AM

07/21/2014 5:50 PM

When you get past stands selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs and ignore booths peddling the latest kitchen gadgets, not to mention seemingly dozens of liquor purveyors, there are a couple of spots at the State Fair that should bolster your faith in California’s future.

One is in the fairgrounds’ southeastern corner, where hundreds of youngsters from 4-H and Future Farmers clubs tend their livestock.

Feeding, grooming and otherwise caring for cattle, hogs, sheep and goats is hard, smelly work, and the kids do it faithfully, hoping to win prizes and sell their animals for profit.

The other is across the fairgrounds in a block of concrete exhibit buildings, where machines, instruments and other devices, designed and built by students enrolled in what used to be called “vocational education,” are on display.

The exhibits would be impressive were they the handiwork of adult professionals. The designs are clever, the workmanship is precise, and the time students devote to their projects is immense.

These are the kids who will design, build and maintain our houses, our cars, our electronic devices and the other products we will use later in the century, and in doing so will keep California’s economy functioning – maybe.

That caveat stems from a political reality. Career technical education, or CTE, as it’s now called, is in crisis. The public supports it and the politicians pay lip service to it, but the professional education establishment is, at best, indifferent.

Left to their own devices, many local school officials would kill CTE because it doesn’t fit their notion that all kids should be in college prep classes.

CTE’s overhead is high, qualified teachers are hard to find, and parents, erroneously, often see such classes as second-rate options.

CTE has been kept on life support in recent state budgets with one-time appropriations for competitive grants, in part because of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s patronage. But he’s leaving the Legislature, and Gov. Jerry Brown wants to end “categorical spending” and let local school officials decide what classes to offer.

The “academies” that some local systems have created are remarkably successful in preparing students either for jobs or specialized technical training after graduation.

However, they are too few, and state data indicate that with the shrinkage of dedicated, ongoing state financing for them, CTE classes and enrollment have been on the decline.

California needs men and women who can do its vital work, whether it’s construction, auto mechanics, plumbing, computer repair or dozens of other occupations. And offering CTE is one of our best antidotes to the dropout crisis.

Given current trends, however, one wonders how long the State Fair will be able to assemble its annual tribute to youthful imagination and energy.

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