LITTLE ROCK — More than 30 of the 86 Vilonia High School students enrolled in a popular medical professions class offered by a regional career technical center at the school would not be allowed to attend if a rule approved by a legislative committee last year is implemented.

LITTLE ROCK — More than 30 of the 86 Vilonia High School students enrolled in a popular medical professions class offered by a regional career technical center at the school would not be allowed to attend if a rule approved by a legislative committee last year is implemented.

The rule would limit the percentage of students from a single school district who can attend a regional technical education center to 60 percent of the total enrollment in the program.

At Vilonia, 86 of the 88 students in the program — 98 percent — attend Vilonia High. The remaining two students attend Mt. Vernon/Enola High School.

“I’d hate to cut kids out of it,” said Vilonia School Superintendent Frank Mitchell. “I’m not sure that is fair.”

Students at as many as 20 school districts across the state could be hurt by the proposed cap, Rep. Linda Tyler, D-Conway, told the Joint Budget Committee last week. She said the proposal, designed to free up money for additional centers and programs, is akin to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Bill Walker, director of the state Department of Career Education, disagreed with the comparison, saying the 60 percent cap on student enrollment is designed to bring the program back in line with its original intent.

Walker told the committee that he has agreed to put a moratorium on implementing the new rule so lawmakers can find a solution that not only allows for all students interested to participate in the program, but also allows for expansion.

“What we have found is that we’ve gotten really, really away from the original intent and purpose of the centers,” Walker said.

Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, said he plans to propose an amendment to the Career Education Department’s budget during the fiscal session that convenes Feb. 13 that would postpone implementing the 60 percent cap until June 30, 2013, so lawmakers and school officials have more time to address the issue.

“I’d like every student in Arkansas to have access to career education, but we’ve got to do that in an environment where we pay for what we can afford,” Tyler said after the budget meeting.

Twenty-four Secondary Area Technical Centers are spread across the state, along with 18 satellite centers. More than 8,700 students from 173 high schools are enrolled at the centers, while students at 68 high schools across the state do not have access to the program. The centers offer more than 35 different programs of study designed to train students in technical skills to prepare them for entering the work force if they decided not to attend college.

Vilonia High School, for example, offers the medical professions program on its campus but sends 144 students to the center at Conway High School, which offers a larger variety of programs.

Some classes offered at the career centers also offer college credit, and nearly 4,000 students earned almost 31,500 hours of college credit last year.

The first centers were established in the 1970s, and until 2003, schools with students enrolled at the education centers helped pay the cost to attend, said DCE Associated Director Sandra Porter.

In an attempt to meet adequacy requirements in the Lake View school funding case, the Legislature changed the funding formula for the technical centers under Act 59 of 2003. Along with per-pupil funding, school districts also began receiving an additional $3,325 for each student enrolled in a career center. The districts then used the money to pay for the center programs.

Over the past eight years, the number of programs offered at the regional centers has increased, as has the number of students participating. But per-student funding has remained the same, Walker told lawmakers last week.

In some cases, the centers have gone from their original purpose of serving high schools within a 25-mile radius to being attended almost entirely by students from a single school, often the school where the classes are taught.

“Over time, what has happened is that they start with three, four, five, maybe six school districts feeding into a center … and it turns out that Conway, for example, has 68 percent of the students,” Walker said, leaving just 32 percent of available slots for students from other schools in the region. The center in Conway has slots for students from Bigelow, Greenbrier, Mayflower, Quitman and Mayflower high schools.

Walker said he did a study of how technical centers in other states are funded and learned that they receive some funding from the state and some from the participating school districts.

Tyler noted the program at Vilonia is actually offered through the Conway center, which provides the teacher and equipment. Vilonia then offers the room and utilities, but does not charge the Conway district.

Last summer, the Legislative Council’s Administrative Rules and Regulations Subcommittee, recommended, at Walker’s request, a rule limiting the enrollment of students from a single school to 60 percent of total student participation.

Should the number of students go over 60 percent, the school that the students attend would have to pay for the number of students that exceed the cap.

“When you add in the fact that we have a limited number of centers, we have a demand for those centers and a demand for centers for kids in the districts that don’t have them, and the fact that we haven’t had an increase in center funding for 10 years … we just had to look at the resources that we have and try to figure out how to maximize,” Walker said.

“So it is a combination of just trying to maximize the current resources we have, expanding as best we can and then trying to figure out how to grow what it is we have,” he said. “We recognize that it is a good thing. I think some districts recognize that, that’s why some of them, like in the case of Vilonia, have 98 percent of the kids in the center. But that gets away from the original (mission) of the centers.”

Tyler said she realizes the problem Walker faces, but she does not want to cut current programs in an effort to add more.

“For sure we plan to have more meetings with interested legislators and Mr. Walker and his team prior to the fiscal session,” Tyler said. “We have a plan, dates haven’t been set yet, but we have plan to meet with Mr. Walker, interested legislators, the governor’s office, and try to work through this before the fiscal session starts.”