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Harder to seek federal funds for education, skills training. But can he get a bill passed?

Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, listened to local educators, school administrators and economic development experts Tuesday as he prepares to draft legislation that would target federal funding for labor needs in the Central Valley.

Many people are keenly aware of the challenges in counties like Stanislaus, where 84 percent of adults don’t have four-year college degrees and unemployment is higher than in other regions of the state. In one national study, Modesto was ranked 145th out of 150 metro areas in educational attainment.

During the roundtable at Modesto Junior College’s west campus, the congressman heard that MJC, school districts and local agencies have ongoing efforts to put elementary to high school students on a path to college and to upgrade the work skills of young adults desiring living-wage jobs with valley industries.

Harder serves on the House Education and Labor Committee and plans to shape legislation in the coming months. “I think there is a big opportunity for the federal government to be stepping up,” Harder said.

His bill will run into a crosscurrent of education cuts sought by the Trump Administration, which proposed slashing $7 billion from the federal Education Department in a budget released in March.

Local districts have tailored some efforts to the changing demographics of the Valley, which produces many high school grads who are first in their families to attend college. It creates a need for career guidance so more students choose a degree program that leads to employment.

One panelist told Harder that only 17 percent of college students nationwide ever visit a career development center on campus.

Former Riverbank Mayor Virginia Madueño said, as a young woman, she gained valuable experience working in migrant education and the courts through a federal summer work program. She cited a decline in Latino males in colleges, and an increase in Latina students, that’s possibly due to family expectations that young men become wage earners after high school.

Flerida Arias, interim vice president of student services at MJC, said a program for recruiting Latino and African-American students works with the entire family, so that parents understand the investment needed to send their children to college.

Ceres Unified School District opens classrooms and computer labs for graduating seniors to sign up for community college with the assistance of MJC staff.

Harder also wanted input on dual enrollment, in which high-schoolers can take classes to earn college credits. One barrier is a shortage of adjunct instructors at community colleges, but that could be remedied by credentialing high school teachers who are able to teach certain subjects, said Henry Yong, chancellor of Yosemite Community College District.

Local agencies and districts have placed an emphasis on vocational programs, such as the county Office of Education’s VOLT Institute, which works with private industry on upgrading the mechanical skills of younger workers.

As the freshman congressman works on the legislation, he also is busy with his first re-election campaign because of the early California primary set for March 2020.

Ted Howze, a Republican from Turlock running in District 10, said Tuesday he needed more details before commenting on Harder’s upcoming bill.

“I definitely believe we need more money for our valley, especially for training in job skills,” Howze said. “I don’t think the answer is the expectation that every single person will go to college.”

The Republican noted it’s not an opportune time for getting legislation passed in the nation’s capital. “Nobody is getting anything done in Washington. They are so mired in infighting over what is going on at the border and impeachment talks,” Howze said.

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