AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Industry leaders lined up Tuesday to praise a high-profile bill in the state Senate designed to give high school students more options in vocational training, saying it will make it easier to find qualified Texans for well-paying technical jobs that don't necessarily require college degrees.
Sen. Dan Patrick heads the Senate Education Committee and has proposed giving students more flexibility on elective courses taken through high school, so as to better emphasize "workforce development." His plan offers a career exploration class in the eighth grade, then lets students choose course paths that focus on business and industry, science and technology, or arts and humanities in grades nine through 12.
Patrick says that while Texas public schools will still promote college-readiness, not all students need a university degree to succeed — and that's why classroom vocational training is so vital.
"My dad was a blue-collar guy. I'm really a blue collar guy who wears a white shirt and a tie to work," said Patrick, a Houston Republican and radio talk show host.
His bill has been endorsed by 19 industry trade groups concerned about a "skills gap" between Texas high school graduates and the technical jobs companies need to fill. Patrick invited a series of witnesses to address his committee Tuesday who reinforced the point.
Mario Lozoya, director of governmental relations for Toyota of Texas, spoke about the company's plant in San Antonio that builds Tundra pickup trucks. He said of 3,000 Toyota employees there, more than 80 percent hold positions that require a high school diploma or less — though applicants must have training in technical and cognitive skills.
But he said that in seven years of operating the facility, Toyota has never been able to fill 100 percent of its available jobs, in part because many high schools are offering outdated auto mechanics classes where students work on cars and engines from the 1970s.
"We have to go outside Texas to find these people," Lozoya said of qualified employees. "We have to go into the Midwest and bring them."
He said Toyota also hires college-educated engineers, but that they account for less than 10 percent of the San Antonio facility's workforce.
Critics have complained the bill could ultimately lower academic standards and dumb-down classroom instruction. The committee also heard from members of the public Tuesday who complained it would sacrifice fine arts high school requirements in favor of career training.
Still, Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, suggested that the proposed revamped high school graduation requirements might keep students who are more interested in technical skills than academic training from dropping out.
Kevin Brackmeyer, superintendent of the Manor school district outside Austin, told the committee, "I have often questioned what happens to our students as they make their way across the stage in May and are not able to find their way to college."
"We are appreciative of the possibility of providing more flexibility to allow our students to pursue a variety of different career pathways," he said.
Chris Witte of chemical and oil giant BASF detailed not being able to find qualified high school graduates for the company's operations in Texas — and said the problem is getting worse. He said technicians can earn more than $100,000 annually.
"These are not minor jobs, these are fantastic jobs," he said. "They're technical jobs, they're troubleshooting jobs, they're not the jobs of the past."
Patrick's plan would still require students to stick to existing graduation requirements in core academic courses. It also does not address the standardized tests they would need to pass for graduation.
That's a bit unusual since standardized testing — and whether Texas is imposing too much of it on its students — has been a white-hot topic this session. Lawmakers have filed scores of bills to reduce the current number of 15 exams that high school students take.
It came up later Tuesday in a meeting of the Texas House Public Education Committee. Rep. Ken King said small districts that are so understaffed that superintendents double as bus drivers are having to hire special personnel to cope with excessive testing and school accountability standards.
"It borders on madness," said King, a Republican from Canadian.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams addressed the committee and acknowledged that the Legislature is likely to slash the number of standardized tests required for graduation. By the time the legislative session ends in May "it won't be 15 tests," Williams said. But he added: "I would hope it's not two or three."