The vocational education movement began in the early twentieth century, even though manual training could be found in the late 1800s. Prairie View Normal School for Negroes offered courses in carpentry and agriculture for boys beginning in 1882 and in 1899 added domestic economy for girls. Home economics was originally part of the manual training program, and its first course was initiated in 1900 at the Texas Industrial Institute and College for white girls in San Antonio. The John T. Ellen School in Austin in 1896 was the first manual training school for white boys. The first vocational education bill was passed in 1903 to provide manual training and agriculture courses. A legislative bill in 1907 required the teaching of agriculture in all rural schools with a total enrollment of more than 300 students. The Rural High School Law of 1911 established programs of "agriculture, domestic economy and manual training" by providing matching funds. This provision, however, was a one-time grant. A major factor in the vocational movement was the position of the United States in world markets in relation to such other industrialized countries as Germany. The National Association of Manufacturers in a 1905 report asserted that "Technical and trade education for youth is a national necessity, and the nation must train its youth in the arts of production and distribution." The rise of the vocational education movement nationally was also part of the Progressive Era. Workers were concerned about making education more useful to their jobs, and business and industry desired better trained workers. Differing views arose about vocational education. The NAM advocated a type of trade school found in Germany, whereas the American Federation of Labor held that public schools should develop trade-skill training. The AFL feared that students would be segregated in second-class schools, as in Europe.
The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 provided funds that were to be matched by the states to pay the salaries of agriculture, home economics, and industrial education teachers and to help states prepare teachers in these subjects. Only a small percentage of the funds available for Texas could be used because the conditions for matching state funds could not be met. The act reinforced a dual system of education by separating vocational education from academic training and providing funds for that purpose. It represented a victory for social efficiency reformers, who believed that there were well-defined social classes, that it was democratic to make industrial education available to the lower classes, and that students should be sorted out into appropriate schools according to their probable destiny. The Cardinal Principles in 1918 endorsed vocational education, a differentiated curriculum, and a comprehensive high school rather than a separate trade school. John Dewey opposed separating vocational education from citizenship preparation. He considered it fatal to democracy to permit the formation of fixed classes and saw the trade school approach contributing to it. Although separate trade schools were not generally established, Dewey's ideas of integrating practical and theoretical studies were not usually followed. Instead, differentiated curriculum, testing, ability grouping, and vocational guidance spread. Thus public education rejected both Dewey's and the social efficiency approaches by working out a compromise within the comprehensive high school.
The George-Deen Act in 1936 supplemented funds provided by the Smith-Hughes Act and liberalized regulations. Much industrial training slowed during the Great Depression because there were few, if any, jobs for skilled workers. During World War II more than 600,000 adults in Texas were enrolled in vocational programs. Additional funding was provided by the George-Barden Act in 1947. By 1948 Texas had one of the three largest vocational education programs in the country. The Gilmer-Aiken Laws in 1949 automatically allocated extra vocational teaching units with salaries paid from the Minimum Foundation Program Fund. The allocation formula was prescribed in the State Plan for Vocational Education. Under an amendment in 1959 to the George-Barden Act, technical education was introduced in high schools, and nursing education was established on a cooperative basis between hospitals, schools, and junior colleges. Occupational training for the unemployed was provided under the Area Redevelopment Act in 1961, and in the same year the Manpower Training and Development Act initiated programs to train unemployed youth and adults and to retrain adults. The Vocational Education Act of 1963 provided grants to states to maintain, improve, and develop vocational-technical education programs. The funds were earmarked for occupations in demand. Funds were also provided for constructing area schools for vocational education as well as provisions for vocational office education, occupational training for potential school dropouts, and work-study programs. Amendments to the act enlarged the scope of programs under the George-Barden and Smith-Hughes acts that focused on employment in vocational agriculture, home economics, and industrial education.
The Governor's Conference on Technical Vocational Education in 1973 concluded that education should be redirected with equal emphasis on education for living and education for making a living. The conclusion was based on the fact that about 75 percent of secondary students were being prepared for college entrance, while the labor force required only 20 percent with bachelor or higher degrees. The council recommended that the educational experiences of every individual should develop occupational awareness and the dignity of work; provide career information, orientation and exploration; and prepare for a job and further education. The Advisory Council for Technical-Vocational Education in 1986, in response to the call by House Bill 72 for the development of a master plan for vocational education, moved in new directions in its key provisions in the master plan. The plan was formulated to integrate into academic subjects the teaching of computer and literacy skills, modify academic courses to teach an awareness of career opportunities, offer technology and life skills management, improve cooperation between special education and vocational education, and divide Texas into regions for planning, developing, and implementing programs. The council observed that education has become the critical link with future technology and future jobs, therefore, the role of vocational education is crucial in expanding the economic base.