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WTCS History

Laws passed in 1907 permitted cities to operate trade schools for persons age 16 or older as part of the public school system (Chapter 122) and allowed them to establish technical schools or colleges under the control of either the school board or a special board (Chapter 344). Wisconsin was the first state to establish a system of state support for vocational, technical and adult education (Chapter 616, Laws of 1911). The law appropriated state aid for continuation, trade and evening schools; required every community with a population of 5,000 or more to establish an industrial education board; authorized the local boards to levy a property tax; and created an assistant for industrial education in the office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. It also created the State Board of Industrial Education.

Wisconsin was also the first state to set up apprenticeship agreements (Chapter 347, Laws of 1911) and require employers to release 14- to 16-year-olds for part-time attendance in continuation schools if such schooling was available (Chapter 505, Laws of 1911). These schools became schools for apprentices. Hours in class were to count as part of the total paid work hours. The schools, established through the work of Charles McCarthy, first director of the present-day Legislative Reference Bureau, emphasized general cultural and vocational education, as well as trade skills.

Due in part to the efforts of McCarthy and modeled after Wisconsin’s vocational training programs, the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, the first federal legislation specifically designed to promote vocational education. The act offered financial aid to states to help pay teachers’ and administrators’ salaries and provided funds for teacher training.

In Chapter 494, Laws of 1917, the Wisconsin Legislature changed the name of the State Board of Industrial Education to the State Board of Vocational Education, authorized it to employ a state director and designated it as the sole agency to work with the newly created federal board.

During the Great Depression, Wisconsin tightened its compulsory school attendance laws, which resulted in more 14- to 18-year-olds attending school. The demand for adult education also increased, as recognized by Chapter 349, Laws of 1937, which renamed the board the State Board of Vocational and Adult Education. During that same period, the vocational school in Milwaukee began to offer college transfer courses.

Events of the 1960s transformed the Wisconsin vocational-technical system into the postsecondary system of today. Federal legislation for vocational schools affected business education and emphasized training for the unemployed. The federal Vocational Education Act, passed in 1963, helped the local boards build new facilities. Chapter 51, Laws of 1961, authorized the board to offer associate degrees for 2-year technical courses. The 1965 Legislature passed Chapter 292, which required a system of vocational, technical and adult education (VTAE) districts covering the entire state by 1970 and changed the board’s name to the State Board of Vocational, Technical and Adult Education. (Chapter 327, Laws of 1967, dropped "State: from the name.) College transfer programs were authorized in Madison, Milwaukee and Rhinelander.

As a result of the federal and state legislative changes in the 1960s, VTAE enrollments more than doubled to 466,000 between 1967 and 1982. The 1970s also saw significant increases in the number of associate degree programs. Other major statutory changes included the requirement that VTAE schools charge tuition and that they improve cooperation and coordination with the University of Wisconsin System. More recently, a greater emphasis has been placed on services to 16- or 18-year-old students.

In the past 2 decades, the system has increased its focus on lifelong learning; education for economic development; and services for groups that formerly had less access to education, including people in rural areas, women and minorities. Special emphasis has been given to assisting the unemployed, displaced homemakers and those with literacy problems.

1993 Wisconsin Act 399 renamed the VTAE system, changing it to the Technical College System, and designated the state board as the Technical College System Board. District VTAE schools became "technical colleges".

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