One of the hottest debates on Beacon Hill and in Boston City Hall is over public school funding. Teachers and students want more from their communities and those communities want more aid from the state.
There's also the matter of adding more charter schools to the mix and how to fund those - a big priority for Gov. Charlie Baker that's anathema to teachers unions.
Left out of much of this conversation is another Baker priority: increasing support for the state's vocational schools, which combine traditional academics with workforce training. A few dozen vocational students and educators descended on the State House Tuesday to argue for their share of ever-tightening state education dollars.
Samantha Dorwin, a machine technology student at the Charles H. McCann Technical School in North Adams said vocational education and training through the Skills USA program have helped develop her confidence and identity.
"Being enrolled in machine technology, a nontraditional program for women, has helped me expand my technical knowledge and Skills US involvement as accented my training with communication and teamwork skills and the confidence I had been lacking," Dorwin said before a room of lawmakers and supporters.
According to the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education, the group behind Tuesday's lobbying effort, 20 percent of Massachusetts high school students are enrolled in a vocational technical school and around 3,200 students are waitlisted each year at the jampacked institutions.
It's budget season at the State House, the time of year when you can't throw a rock without hitting a needy group or special interest looking to protect or increase its funding.
The students are asking lawmakers to push the powerful chairs of the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees, the authors of the state's budget, to support the vocational training aid Baker laid out in his budget proposal. Top budget priorities for the advocates are $2 million in grants for dual enrollment to earn credits in both high school and college courses and $5.25 million for paid internships. The group is also backing a provision from Baker's proposed economic development bill that would lay out $75 million in capital spending over five years for workforce development training.
The budget ask looks like a valuable one, but there's no hotter funding debate on Beacon Hill right now than the fight over school funding. Legislative Democrats will need to decide whether to boost traditional public school funding over what Baker has proposed. The governor's faced some criticism from Democrats for increasing funds for schools to cities and towns by only 1.6 percent in his budget proposal, but lawmakers can increase that figure as long as they can balance the budget in other ways.
Protests from students in Boston and formal requests for more aid from local school boards are creating a groundswell of support for more state aid that lawmakers won't be able to miss.
The group came armed with the results of a survey to prop up their claims that practical workforce training for teenager is money well spent. Produced by Northeastern University's Barry Bluestone, a well-regarded expert on the local economy, the survey shows that 90 percent of the employers asked agree that the state should increase the number of vocational school graduates. Three quarters of those employers say they prefer to hire vocational graduates for entry-level jobs and 61 percent prefer them for higher-level positions.
Bluetone said estimates show the state will need to fill over one million job openings by 2022, setting up a "gargantuan workforce training challenge" facing the Commonwealth.
An Asian cuisine-themed lunch at the event was provided by South Shore Vocational Technical High School's culinary program, with desserts from Blue Hills Regional Technical School.
Vocational schools in Massachusetts are no longer a substitute for students who don't plan to go on to college. Bluestone's survey found that 68 percent of vocational students attend postsecondary education. Dorwin plans to attend her first choice school in the fall, Bentley University in Waltham.