Giving State's Vo-Techs the Space and Seats to Accommodate More Students

Under legislation that was approved by a key Senate committee last week, the state would issue $500 million in general-obligation bonds to help county vocational-technical high schools and community colleges expand their technical-education programs or create new ones.

The proposed bond issue follows a series of hearing held in recent months by a legislative “manufacturing caucus” that was organized by lawmakers to update state regulations and policies governing New Jersey’s rebounding manufacturing industry. One of the key issues that came up repeatedly during the caucus hearings was how economic growth in New Jersey is being held back because many companies simply can’t find enough employees with the right technical skills to fill their job openings, even as the demand for vocational-technical education is surging in New Jersey.

“Here’s an opportunity for us to fix that,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), who’s serving as the manufacturing panel’s leader. “This is really something that is critical.”

The proposed bond issue already has bipartisan backing in the Legislature, and Gov. Phil Murphy has previously signaled his support for the idea as well. But it would ultimately be up to New Jersey voters to decide whether to sign off on the new borrowing, with a public question going on the ballot as soon as this fall.

More students than seats

According to officials from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools who testified during the manufacturing-caucus hearings, more than 30,000 students across the state filed applications last year to attend one of the county vo-tech high schools. But only a little more than 12,000 students statewide were accepted, primarily due to space constraints. A recent needs assessment determined that it would take nearly $900 million in spending by the vo-tech districts to meet all construction, renovation, and equipment needs across the state, but their primary source of funding is local property taxes, which are already at a record high.

Under the proposed bond issue, which has been dubbed the “Career and Technical Education Bond Act,” a total of $450 million would be raised specifically for the vocational-technical schools by issuing debt that would be paid off by state taxpayers. Another $50 million would be raised to fund program expansions at county colleges.

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