Vocational education on both the college and secondary levels could be devastated if tax limitation proposals are approved by voters this fall, says state Vocational Education Director Joe O. Luke.

Luke, attending the state's annual vocational education conference at Utah Valley Community College, paused Wednesday to discuss the importance of vocational education in Utah's future.Luke said he welcomes Gov. Norm Bangerter's proposal to funnel $10 million of the state's budget surplus into public and private education but said that amount will be a drop in the bucket should tax limitation initiatives pass. Bangerter also proposes to refund $80 million of the $110 million surplus to taxpayers and keep the remaining $20 million in a rainy-day budget account.

Refunds should be withheld at least until after the fate of the limitation movement has been decided, Luke said.

If the initiatives pass, vocational education will suffer and "elective courses in our public school system will be devastated," he said. "That's a biased position, I realize that. But the scenarios are uncertain at this point."

Despite projections by limitation supporters that approval of the initiatives won't necessarily mean elimination of any educational programs, Luke said, school districts could expect budget reductions of about 15 percent. Such a reduction would take a heavy toll on elective courses and vocational courses, which are expensive to offer.

"In my opinion, it's impossible to have a tax rollback without curtailing elective courses," Luke said. "Vocational education is an elective course."

Many people don't realize the importance of vocational education in the state's economic future, Luke said. Vocational education, according to the theme of the three-day conference ending Wednesday, is "the threshold for America's future."

Nearly 30 percent of high school students drop out and another large percentage of students going on to college never finish, Luke said.

"They need an opportunity to develop skills. That's one of the things we're trying to do."

When vocational education is curtailed or eliminated as a high school elective, Luke said, students suffer, especially those who have no plans to enter college. Too many high schools have educational requirements that cater to college admission requirements, while ignoring vocational professions.

"Only about 20 percent of the jobs in Utah require a college education," Luke said. "A lot of high-paying jobs now are not for college graduates."

Despite available vocational training within the state, many jobs go begging because not enough people are taking advantage of vocational opportunities, he said.

Nevertheless, Luke is optimistic about the future of vocational training, in part because the State Board of Vocational Education has expressed renewed interest in vocational education.

"I think Jim Moss (state superintendent of public instruction) is committed to vocational education as much or more than any other superintendent we've had," Luke said.

He said state officials will continue developing vocational programs, looking for ways to better utilize vocational training facilities and trying to pique the public's interest in vocational education.

"In general, we feel positive about our vocational education programs. They're as good if not better than other vocational education programs in the country," Luke said. "I feel positive about our direction."