Making Vocational Education Happen

TX Representative Terry Wilson

photos courtesy office of Rep. Wilson

Public and higher education has been the focus of Colonel Terry M. Wilson’s three terms as state representative for District 20 in the Texas House since he was elected in 2017.  We sat down with COL Wilson to discuss his work in the Legislature and his priorities for education funding.  

GTV: In the 2021 Legislative Session you served on the House Appropriations Committee as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Article III. What did that entail? 

CW: The Appropriations Committee writes the House’s first draft of the state Budget, which is divided into articles that cover a different section of state government. Article III covers public education and higher education. Our subcommittee drafted the education budget for the state for 2022 and 2023, which represents more than one third of the state budget. 

GTV: Was there one specific area of interest for you? 

CW: Yes, vocational education. So much about public education has evolved into getting kids ready for college, but college is not the only path to a bright future. The Texas Constitution makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the state government to provide an education sufficient for every Texan to continue to higher education or enter the workforce directly, and we haven’t done a great job fulfilling the workforce promise.  

College is a great path, but it should not be the only one open for Texas students. Quality education requires feeding a child’s passion for learning—some have a passion for trade skills and love for hands-on work. We should be encouraging those students, giving them a launchpad to build the future of our nation. 

GTV: What originally sparked your interest in vocational education? 

CW: As an Army acquisition executive, I was chartered by Congress to turn completed research and development efforts into real physical products to be manufactured for the defense department. I was responsible for awarding contracts and then, on behalf of the government, with my engineers, scientists, and production specialists, managing the companies that were actually producing the products. 

We sent requests for proposals that stated we want this package of products built. Companies like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, etc. made bids and went through source selection. I never found a company who could build anything by itself—each always had to have foreign partners. 

 Why? Because there wasn’t enough domestic production capacity, and we didn’t have the required skilled workers to manufacture these products at scale. That’s why they brought foreign partners to the table, which is how we lose our intellectual property and compromise national security. You can’t keep major innovations in military technology if you send them overseas to be built, where they can be copied, reproduced, and sold to others. Vocational education is the key to building up the skilled workforce our country so desperately needs. 

GTV: What do you think has held vocational education back in Texas? 

CW: Funding, faculty, and flexibility. First, putting together a vocational training program is expensive. If a school wants to put in a plumbing or automotive shop option, the tools, space, and necessary safety equipment require a substantial investment. A smaller rural school is not going to be able to put that together easily. 

Second, finding quality instructors is not easy, especially in areas where the skill set is in high demand. When experts can make twice as much money in the job market over teaching their skill set in a public school, it can be hard to find people able and willing to teach the necessary courses. State teaching certification standards are also a barrier that must be addressed. 

Finally, flexibility. In the last few years, the Texas Education Agency, Texas Workforce Commission, and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board have come together as a tri-agency commission to identify where the greatest needs are in the Texas workforce, what skills are in the highest demand and in shortest supply. 

These can shift quickly, so if a school wants vocational training relevant to the demands of the job market, it needs to be able to put new programs together quickly, which isn’t always easy, given the financial and faculty challenges. 

GTV: What steps did you take in the 87th Legislature to help schools overcome these hurdles? 

CW: To help fund startup costs, we put $180 million into the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, also known as P-TECH, a program in which schools work with community colleges, technical colleges, and industry to share resources and develop long-term paths for students to graduate with an associate degree or a trade certification. 

We adjusted per-student funding formulas to reward schools focusing on vocational skills that provide graduates with in-demand jobs. The more demand there is for a particular skill set in the Texas workforce, the higher the tier or funding the school receives for that student.

We also adjusted formulas so schools receive more money for student longevity in a particular track. For example, a student who began a 7th grade survey class of trade skills, found a track that sparked his interest, and continued that track until graduating with a certification would earn far more program funding than a student who started in 10th grade. Incentivizing schools to get kids started well before high school increases their chances of graduating with a job.

GTV: What results have we seen from those investments so far?

CW: Before this last session, hundreds of schools applied for the P-TECH program each year, but we only had funding for 81. As of the 2022-23 school year, 235 schools have been approved and gone through the process of adding new and relevant vocational education options, with many, many more still to come. 

We want every cent put toward vocational education to lead to a well-paying job so the opportunities for students are based on what our economy needs and not limited to what their school could afford to offer on their own. 

Finally, we are not going to waste taxpayer dollars on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs that don’t put kids on a pathway to a well-paying job right out of school, filling the gaps in our technical workforce that Texas so desperately needs.