By Kate Campbell
Concerns about future funding for high school agricultural classes and leadership programs are being voiced throughout California—and nowhere louder than at the state Capitol, where thousands of students and members of Future Farmers of America rallied last week to try to prevent elimination of the state’s $4.1 million Agricultural Education Incentive Grant program.
“It was gratifying to see the number of legislators who came out to support the students at the Capitol rally,” said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, who estimated participation at more than 2,000 students.
“They were met with great bipartisan support from both houses,” Aschwanden said. “The kids who came to the Capitol were well prepared to discuss the programs and funding issues, and did a great job of visiting offices.”
As part of a Local Control Funding formula, the Brown administration proposes to eliminate the grant program in the next state budget. Program funding was included in the 2013-14 budget because legislators pressured the administration to preserve it, but the administration suggested the grant program could be scrapped this year. The administration favors locally controlled funding, which allows school districts to decide how to spend state dollars.
Agricultural educators across the state currently use the grants to support career-based education that combines FFA leadership and personal development programs with classroom and vocational instruction, he said. The programs develop young leaders who go on to attend post-secondary colleges and career technical education programs at higher rates than their peers, Aschwanden said.
Enrollment in agriculture classes offered at 315 high schools statewide has steadily climbed during the past decade, educators said. Today, about 78,000 California high school students take agriculture-related classes, with strong program growth at urban high schools as well as those in rural communities.
State grant funds help pay for such things as upgrading shop equipment, purchasing trailers, expanding and improving livestock facilities, and funding curriculum enrichment activities, such as field study. Yearly grants range from $6,000 to $46,000, depending on program size.
Based on experience, vocational education experts say, “shop classes” are often the first to be cut when school budgets tighten, even as demand increases for workers with technical and vocational skills.
“As teachers, parents, community members and taxpayers, we’re angry,” said Dave Gossman, who heads the agriculture department at Atwater High School. “The decision to eliminate the ag grant program is perplexing because it impacts an education program that has a direct benefit on the lives of our kids and the state’s future.”
Without the grant funding, California’s agricultural programs could be terminated, vocational education experts said.
“Instead of eliminating California’s proven FFA program, why not secure funding and build on the programs to offer more students the opportunity for success?” Gossman said.
“Virtually every region in our state has an FFA program,” Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, said in a letter to legislative leaders, which was signed by nearly 100 members of the Legislature and also noted the rising enrollment in agricultural classes.
The classes include agriscience, mechanics, ornamental horticulture, animal science, agriculture business, plant and soil science, forestry and natural resources. Last year, high school agriculture education departments offered more than 1,300 classes that meet university admission requirements.
Andrea Fox, legislative policy analyst for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said Farm Bureau has been “actively involved in ensuring that funding will remain available for the agricultural grant program.” She noted that a Farm Team alert from CFBF generated nearly 400 letters to the governor and legislators in support of the program.
Aschwanden said the next steps in the state budget process will include legislative committee hearings.
“We’re anxious to see what the May (budget) revise looks like in terms of overall funding for education,” he said. “We’re hearing there may be additional funds available for education, which will make these proposed cuts to ag education even more disturbing.”
He said agricultural educators have asked people to contact legislators, “particularly those from urban areas.”
Leaders of “Save FFA.com,” a grassroots group affiliated with the California Agricultural Teachers’ Association, encourage parents and community leaders to write letters to the governor and members of the Legislature. More information on the effort to ensure funding for agricultural education is online at www.saveffa.com.
Credit to the California Farm Bureau Federation for this article