Over the 15 years Jack Stewart has been president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, he has watched as an issue he champions -- career-focused education in high school -- has been pushed aside in name of education reform that has focused on classroom-based academic standards.
A generation ago, he says, seven in 10 California high school students took at least one career-technical education class. Today that has fallen to three in 10.
What else, he asks, has happened during that same period? "We've seen an increase in the dropout rate."
These days, Stewart has found a somewhat unlikely ally in his quest to connect what students learn in high school to the real world of work.
On Tuesday, he stood on stage with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, to add his support to a bill Steinberg is calling the "Dropout Reduction and Workforce Development Bond Act of 2013."
Steinberg is on a mission to revamp high school curricula in California so that the focus on academic rigor is maintained, but that it is also integrated with another objective of equal importance -- relevance.
High schools, he believes, must provide an approach to learning that "keeps kids in school and is relevant to what they will do in their own lives."
Last year, Steinberg passed legislation that will require that the state's accountability metric for high schools, called the Academic Performance Index, be recalculated so that no more than 60 percent is based on standardized test scores. The rest would be determined by real-world outcome measures, such as the percentage of students who graduate and go on to enroll in post-high school education.
He's following that this year with a proposal designed to spur partnerships with business and industry that will create new career-pathway programs in high schools that will include not just curricula that integrate academic subjects with career-based applications, but also provide internships, mentoring and summer jobs.
The idea is to allow business to invest in career-pathway programs at high schools and community colleges through the use of "workforce development bonds" that would be repaid by the state, with a rate of return that would rise based on results.
He envisions that a business that invests in a successful program will discover it is "better to invest in California high schools than in a Wall Street financial instrument."
The hope, he said, is to create an environment in which investing and partnering with local schools will become "more than just a philanthropic add-on for a business."
On Tuesday, he was joined by an impressive and diverse group of supporters, including the state Chamber of Commerce, the Building and Construction Trades Council, the California Nurses Association and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Steinberg acknowledged that the coalition of supporters could potentially unravel once he identifies how the state will repay the bonds -- perhaps with savings realized from scaling back its Enterprise Zone program, or perhaps directly from Proposition 98 education funds.
That big detail remains to be determined.
Chamber President Allan Zaremberg noted that one of California's great competitive advantages has long been a higher education system that "has been the envy of the world," but that there is also a need "to focus on jobs that don't require a degree from Berkeley."
The reason what was once known as "vocational education" fell out of favor is that in the old economy there were distinct and inequitable pathways for different groups of students -- one that involved learning how to use a wrench, another that involved learning calculus.
In today's economy, the levels of academic achievement needed to attain a middle-class job are much more compressed. A student in a career-pathway program will have to learn algebra and otherwise become prepared for college or other post-high school training. There is nothing second-tier about it.
What's different is that in a career-focused program students discover why learning those skills is important and how they can later apply them in ways that are productive and, yes, relevant.
Steinberg said he was motivated to make this proposal after an unusual state Senate "field trip" to schools in Long Beach that have been leaders in developing academic programs linked with career preparation, including a partnership with Boeing.
There are many other isolated programs with proven success, such as 28 career academies operated by the Sacramento Unified School District in such areas as health sciences.
These things work, he said, but there aren't enough of them.
"I think it will take this kind of pop to bring what we know works to scale."