Though our time was cut short this week by the blizzard working its way across the state, the Missouri House worked to advance HB 56, a bill that I co-sponsored. It places an emphasis on maintaining and promoting the quality of Missouri’s career and technical education programs.

As someone who benefited immensely from my experience as an FFA member, I have a strong desire to see our commitment to programs like the Future Farmers of America strengthened. It is important to me that we ensure these programs can continue to provide Missouri students with the kind of hands-on, practical training that will ready them for work on the family farm or in the business world.

We have a proud tradition of career and technical education here in Missouri, and current numbers indicate vocational education is more popular than ever. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), more than 63 percent of the state’s high school students participated in at least one CTE program for the 2011-2012 school year. These are students benefiting from an opportunity to learn and explore possible career paths in fields such as agriculture, business, health sciences, and marketing.

Sadly, even though our career and technical programs are doing admirable work, the state education department will not make a strong commitment to support them. In fact, last year I passed legislation to reverse a decision that had been made by the department to end staffing support for programs like DECA, FBLA, and FFA. The bill that was ultimately signed into law made it clear that DESE would continue to provide staffing support and statewide coordination for career and technical student organizations. It was a change that had to be made in order to ensure the continued viability of these vital programs.

This year we again have seen these programs threatened -- this time by DESE’s new Missouri School Improvement Plan. While the new plan doesn’t take steps to eliminate the career and technical programs, it doesn’t specifically address them either. Supporters of these programs worry that the failure to mention career and technical education in detail in the new plan may lead some school districts to put these programs on the chopping block when budgetary restrictions force cuts to be made.

While the state education department has publicly stated it has no desire to diminish the importance of CTE programs, their new policy leaves the door open for potential cuts. That’s why members of the Missouri House and Senate are working this year to pass legislation that would develop a comprehensive long-range strategic plan for career and technical education in Missouri. Known as the Career and Technical Education Student Protection Act, the bill would create a special advisory council to oversee Missouri’s CTE programs.

It’s important to note the council would be made up of educators, administrators, and members of the business community who have a vested interest in the success of CTE programs. They would work together to develop a short and long-term statewide plan for career and technical education, identify legislative recommendations to improve career and technical education, and promote coordination of existing career and technical education programs.

This is a change I support because it is necessary for our career and technical education programs to be put in a position to thrive, not merely survive.

Some of the greatest and most life-altering moments of my life occurred while I wore a blue FFA jacket. My participation in the program transformed me from a young man who lacked the confidence to even recite the FFA creed in public to someone who now speaks in front of hundreds and even thousands of people. More importantly, it taught me the value of hard work and the skills necessary to be a productive member of the workforce.

For the sake of our young people, I hope we continue the CTE programs that will better prepare them for future success. For the sake of our state, we must promote and protect these programs if we’re going to have the kind of workforce that will attract the businesses we need to make Missouri’s economy prosperous and vibrant in the years ahead.