Under a new state regulation, Massachusetts’ vocational and technical schools will have to recalibrate their admissions systems to prevent what advocates see as decades of discrimination and missed opportunity.
A coalition of groups that pushed for change are applauding the rule passed Tuesday by the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But some said it still leaves too much room for exclusion and may leave room for violations of federal civil-rights law.
There is intense demand for a seat at one of the state’s vocational-technical high schools. A recent state report found that across Massachusetts over 18,500 rising ninth-graders applied for just 10,616 open spots, with fiercer competition in some corners of the state (PDF).
And as vocational and technical schools weigh applicants’ grades, disciplinary and attendance records, and teacher recommendations, they’ve tended to strand on their waitlists a disproportionate number of students of color, English learners and low-income students.
The new regulation seeks to change that. It bars schools from considering students’ excused absences from school or “minor” disciplinary incidents in admissions decisions. And it asks the schools to publish admissions plans that comply with federal Title VI anti-discrimination guidelines each fall.
Before the board’s vote on Tuesday, Secretary of Education Jim Peyser endorsed the regulation, saying it “shifts the landscape significantly” around vocational-school admissions.
“There’s now an affirmative obligation on the part of school committees to adopt non-discriminatory policies and to proactively respond whenever there’s evidence to indicate that there’s a disparate impact,” Peyser said.
Speakers from the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which had pushed for admissions reform, were more muted in their praise.
“We worry that it will leave many kids facing exactly the same problem that their older brothers and sisters have been facing for two decades."Peter Enrich, chair of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts
“This was a step in the right direction — but a relatively modest step — toward addressing a very severe problem,” said Peter Enrich, chair of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts, who was part of that coalition.
Enrich said the prior system — which giving scarce vocational seats to students who had felt relatively comfortable in traditional classrooms — made “absolutely no sense, from a policy point of view," and so welcomed this change.
But Enrich, the former general counsel for the state Department of Administration and Finance, said the new rule still falls short: leaving it to schools to comply with complex federal civil-rights protections, and setting up only “a very loose process” for the state to address cases of disparate impact where they arise.
“We worry that it will leave many kids facing exactly the same problem that their older brothers and sisters have been facing for two decades,” Enrich said.
Many coalition members argued that a simple lottery would be a fairer way to ensure that vocational schools welcome willing applicants seeking an alternative mode of public education — and would stay more clearly on the right side of the relevant federal law.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Peyser argued that nationally, many vocational schools run selective admissions systems “without objection” from federal education officials. “The presence of admissions criteria themselves does not necessarily imply discrimination or disparate impact,” he said. “It’s the implementation of those policies, the details, that matter.”
Dinanyili Paulino, another coalition member, said she still worries that the young students she works with may still be “discouraged” by the persistence of selective admissions systems separating them from a vocational education.
Paulino, chief operating officer of the Chelsea-based nonprofit La Colaborativa, said the pandemic called attention to the shortage of well-paying jobs available to immigrant-rich communities like Chelsea, Everett and Revere, and the economic catastrophes that can result.
Just this week, Paulino said, an 18-year-old working with La Colaborativa dropped out of high school to help her mother with housekeeping work.
“She says, ‘I wanna finish school, but I really need money,’” Paulino said. “So now, she wakes up now at 2 a.m. and goes to clean buildings with her mother. That particular youth’s situation would have been much better if she were in a vocational setting.”
Paulino said while she is celebrating the new rule, she thinks state policymakers don’t understand cases like that one: “Why don’t we turn our attention to youth that not only want and desire to go learn in vocational schools, but that need them?”
Under the new regulation, schools will have to submit their planned admissions program by October 1 of this year.
Enrich said he hopes the regulation works as advertised, but that he and like-minded advocates will explore other options — including a push for federal litigation — if it comes up short.