GUEST VIEW: Texas lawmakers make progress

By Tony Bennett

Texas Association of Manufacturers

While the budget, pandemic and the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri dominated much of the recent legislative session, lawmakers made unmatched progress in education-to-workforce alignment issues that will have long-term benefits for Texas students, employers and the economy.

Several new policies will ensure students have access to educational opportunities needed for the job market in Texas. Crafting quality workforce development programs requires collaboration between employers, high schools and community and technical colleges. A bill by Rep. Keith Bell advances this goal by creating a new advisory council of business, teachers and community colleges to develop industry-based certifications to prepare students to meet current and future workforce needs.

A public school finance bill by Rep. Dan Huberty improves the formula funding for career & technical education (CTE) to better align “programs of study” to ensure students are prepared for in-demand, high-wage careers. The new formulas reward school districts for offering CTE courses and pay a higher reimbursement rate. Rep. Gary VanDeaver’s bill adds an achievement indicator in the public school accountability system when students complete a program of study by high school graduation.

For employers seeking to collaborate with higher education partners to serve specific needs, a public community or junior college will have the “first right of refusal” to meet those needs under a bill by Rep. John Raney. If the community college is unwilling or unable to do so, now employers will be able to invite competing colleges or workforce-training providers to partner with them. This new law could be a real game-changer for businesses or industries in under-served communities.

A bill by Rep. Murphy will make permanent the “Tri-Agency Initiative,” a collaborative effort of the Texas Education Agency, Texas Workforce Commission, and Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. These agencies will work together to identify statewide workforce goals and designate career pathways for occupations aligned with current needs and forecasted, high-growth careers. The agencies will also evaluate career education and training programs based on the outcomes of program participants to ensure transparency and accountability on state workforce spending.

The three agencies create tools that allow average Texans to evaluate workforce programs, build a platform to provide students with information on jobs and earning potential and create a public dashboard that tracks the state’s progress toward meeting its workforce development goals. An initiative by Rep. JM Lozano requires the three state agencies to develop a framework to encourage work-based learning opportunities like internships, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training.

In response to the pandemic and rising unemployment, there have been calls to re-skill and up-skill the state’s workforce to put Texans back to work in high-demand occupations and accelerate our economic recovery. A bill by Sen. Brandon Creighton establishes the Texas Re-skilling and Up-skilling through Education (TRUE) Initiative to support workforce education at public junior colleges. Funding for competitive grants will likely be debated during a special session later this fall to appropriate $16 billion in federal relief funds.

Sen. Larry Taylor authored a bill that creates the Texas Commission on Community College Finance to study state appropriations for public community and junior colleges. The commission will make recommendations for establishing a state funding formula and funding levels sufficient for sustaining viable community college education and training offerings throughout Texas.

Finally, lawmakers fully funded the “returned value funding formula” by Texas State Technical College, which pays that institution based on their graduates’ incomes, not hours in the classroom. The system rewards quality technical training, employability, and job placement, which benefits students, employers, and the state’s economy.

These new laws reflect a commitment to collaboration, transparency and accountability that is essential to prepare Texas students for the high-quality jobs that anchor the Texas economy.

Tony Bennett is the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Manufacturers.