Commentary: Supporters of agricultural education must mobilize now

Issue Date: January 29, 2014
By Jim Aschwanden
Jim Aschwanden
Participants in agricultural eduction programs discussed their benefits during a presentation at Galt High School last October. A state budget proposal would eliminate funding for the Agricultural Education Incentive Grant program.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Now that the state budget proposed by the Brown administration would eliminate a key funding source for agricultural education from the state budget, it's time for supporters of ag education to contact legislators, the governor's office and other policy leaders regarding this issue.

Recognizing that agricultural production, processing and ancillary activities play a strategic role in California's future economic growth and vitality, the California Legislature in 1983 enacted the Agricultural Education Incentive Grant program as part of a state budget allocation for public schools. Central to the creation of this program was recognition that the state of California had a compelling interest in ensuring that bright, talented and energetic students were prepared to enter a wide variety of agricultural career choices, given the many challenges, issues and opportunities facing our state.

The Ag Incentive Grant program was designed to motivate or incentivize districts to adopt strategies that led to systemic and sustained program improvement over time. The program provides annual funding of $4.13 million through matching grants to schools implementing actions that are above basic course standards. For example, Local Ag Advisory Committees are required to conduct systematic and ongoing reviews of curriculum, facilities and program activities tailored to each individual community. Ag Incentive Grant funds are used to update and modernize equipment and technology, as well as provide vital resources for developing leadership skills and personal growth opportunities for students.

It's important to note that participating districts had to become active partners in this process and provide matching funds from local sources to ensure their continued commitment to local program improvement activities. It is also important to note that the proposed cut will not just affect the millions provided by the state, but equates to a cut to these programs of at least twice the annual funding, due to the mandatory local district match of the funds.

The administration proposal to eliminate the Agricultural Education Incentive Grant program would effectively remove targeted incentive funding from high schools currently offering agricultural education programs, and instead redistribute those funds across the board to all schools in California. Schools currently offering agricultural education programs would no longer receive those funds, and districts would lose the incentive to provide the matching grant. Because of education funding requirements, the Ag Incentive Grant does not impact the overall budget or cost taxpayers one more dime. Now, the funds will just be swept into the education bureaucracy throughout the state.

Since the inception of current Agricultural Incentive Grant funding, innovative programs and coursework have been developed that are attracting record numbers of students into agricultural education programs throughout the state, with more than 74,000 students enrolled in more than 300 programs statewide. Graduate follow-up data compiled since 1983 reveal that agricultural education programs currently send more students on to post-secondary colleges and training institutions, where they graduate with degrees in larger numbers and in shorter time frames than their peers in general academic programs. Today, there are 1,337 ag education courses approved by the University of California and the California State University system for meeting the admission requirements of those universities, representing 45 percent of agricultural courses offered statewide.

Besides the obvious financial implications of this action, there are serious policy issues that come into play as well. It is universally recognized that there are three primary drivers that motivate schools: what subjects and courses are mandated by the state, what measurements are used by the state to evaluate schools, and what funds are provided for specific programs and activities. If a program is not required, if it is not part of the standardized testing program used to evaluate schools or is not specifically funded, it will simply disappear over time, as schools are increasingly pressured to focus on what is required, measured or funded. In fact, in one year since the administration's funding actions have been implemented, Career Technology enrollment has plummeted by more than 101,000 students, and we lost nearly 20 percent of Career Technical Education teachers in California—a result of cuts previously made to other CTE programs.

This latest action would remove any incentive for districts to continue to offer agricultural education programs, since these courses and programs are not part of the state-mandated graduation coursework, are not part of the computation of current school accountability measures, and would no longer have dedicated funding incentivizing schools to provide the program. Agricultural education will most certainly experience the same decline that we have seen in other CTE areas.

Given that California is the leading agricultural state in the Unites States and a major component of our state's economic well-being, it is important that strong and vibrant agricultural education programs exist within our schools. Agricultural education programs have produced many leaders at the state, national and international levels who credit those programs with motivating them and developing their leadership potential.

In an era that far too often emphasizes rote memorization and standardized testing strategies, agricultural education offers unique and compelling opportunities for students to develop both their academic and personal life skills. We can only hope that supporters of these programs can work with members of the Legislature and others to help inform the administration that this proposal is not productive or necessary, and in fact jeopardizes students who represent the economic and agricultural future of California.

(Jim Aschwanden is executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.