Michael Srsen doesn't look like the type of teacher who would struggle to fill his classes.
On a Thursday afternoon in late January, the graphic design teacher at Flowing Wells High School engaged in friendly banter with his students as they came and went from his classroom. The room had a laidback atmosphere where students joked with each other and snacked as they worked, but remained productive as they created designs on iMac computers.
But just a few months ago, the fate of Srsen's program seemed bleak. As a teacher within Pima County's Joint Technical Education District, or JTED, Srsen has faced statewide funding cuts that have removed all freshmen students from his courses and other courses aimed at giving students technical training in subjects like plumbing, automotive repair, culinary arts and fire science.
When the funding cuts hit, Srsen turned to recruitment efforts—a series of video "commercials" he posted on YouTube and promotional speeches at local schools—to keep a full-time salary during the 2013-2014 school year. All his sections were filled during the first week of classes in August, but his pay through the summer remained just more than half of what he normally took home.
A new bill sponsored by state Rep. Ethan Orr, a Tucson Republican, that aims to reinstate at least some of the funding that was cut in 2011 has JTED administration and teachers such as Srsen optimistic about the future of their district.
Orr said that for some students, career and technical education is a more appropriate fit.
"I think technical and project-based education, for a lot of students, is exactly what they need," Orr said. "They have a 98 percent graduation rate because the traditional method of education doesn't work for some students."
Orr's HB 2176 passed the House Education Committee 8-1 on Monday, Feb. 10.
Like every other school district, JTEDs throughout the state are funded by a state formula that grants a certain amount of funding to a district based on how many students are enrolled there, said Tina Norton, Pima County JTED's chief operating officer and assistant superintendent.
Freshmen, Norton added, made up nearly half of JTED enrollment, thanks in part to the more open schedules that ninth-graders tend to have versus the packed ones that juniors and seniors see as they finish courses required for graduation. From a financial standpoint, losing that first year was a big hit, Norton said.
"We lost one year out of four, but that's a whole group of students that we used to be able to count that we can't count," Norton said. "It was one out of four, but it was the largest enrollment out of four, and so that's why that was significant."
The 2011 funding cuts resulted in a loss of nearly $14 million for Pima County's JTED district, about half of its annual budget. The cut, Norton said, had a domino effect on how the district would be funded in the future.
With nearly half the budget gone, certain programs also had to go, which meant fewer courses available to students, which meant fewer students. Since the district's funding is based nearly entirely on the number of students enrolled, funding then went down again based on the shrinking enrollment numbers. The cycle has led to further cutting of programs in order for the district to keep within its budget.
Norton points to a number of studies that have shown higher test scores and graduation rates for students in JTED programs. But these results, she added, only are achieved when students start JTED courses early in high school.
"Our kids graduate at 98 percent versus 72 percent (of non-JTED students)," she said. "So certainly catching them early is key. ... Juniors and seniors don't drop out of high school. Seniors truly don't, you know—you've made it."
The bottom line, Norton said, is that the technical training that JTED courses offer provides the relevance necessary for certain students to understand what they're learning.
"Kids learn through real-world applications, which are proven to be the best way to learn," she said. "So it makes kids understand why they're learning what they're learning."
Norton said she looks forward to the day when career and technical education is mandatory, and not one of the first areas to take cuts when states hit hard times.
"CTE is often seen as elective; it's often seen as disposable and not as important as math, science and reading," she said. "And yet, kids learn math, science and reading better through CTE. So it really shouldn't be an elective."
Srsen's sections are set to remain full for the remainder of the school year, but come summer, he said he expects to be back on the recruitment grind, persuading students to take his courses to keep his full contract. At the end of the day, he said, he just wanted to see students get access to the courses they want to take.
"I hope that the people who have the power and authority to make changes about this would give it some really serious consideration, and do that for the right reasons," he said. "These programs like mine and the other CTE programs that get funding help kids succeed more in life, in school and be more prepared for their futures."