Coalition says proposed voc school admission changes don’t go far enough
Groups urge state education board to remove ‘discriminatory’ barriers to access
PROPOSED CHANGES TO vocational school admission policies, which the state has developed following years of pressure from municipal leaders and advocates, don’t go nearly far enough toward ensuring access to the schools for all students, says a coalition of civil rights, education, and community groups.
The Vocational Education Justice Coalition is calling on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to make changes to the proposed regulations when the new policies are brought for a vote at its monthly meeting next Tuesday.
“We call on the board…to act for justice and equity,” said Barbara Fields of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts in a press briefing Thursday morning held by coalition members.
The state’s vocational high schools have been permitted, under state regulations, to admit students using selective entry criteria, including middle school grades, attendance record, and discipline history. Critics say that has led to huge disparities in voc school enrollment compared to surrounding school districts when it comes to groups of students protected by federal civil rights laws, including students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and those from low-income households.
The proposed new regulations say any entry policies must be aimed at enrolling a student population with a “comparable academic and demographic profile” to the sending school districts that students come from.
“The proposed changes to [vocational school] admissions regulations follow extensive stakeholder engagement and discussion,” Riley said today in a statement. “I believe we can best address this complex issue by allowing individual schools and programs to set policies that respond to the needs of their sending communities and are consistent with applicable federal and state laws and regulations to promote equitable access for all students, while retaining the Department’s role to monitor compliance and intervene when necessary.”
Peter Enrich, a member of the vocational coalition and emeritus professor at Northeastern University School of Law, said merely ensuring comparable demographics at voc schools and sending districts does not meet federal civil rights standards. “That’s not the requirement,” he said during Thursday’s virtual briefing by advocates. “The requirement is that you don’t use criteria that discriminatorily exclude. We anticipate that, under a fair process, in many schools there would be larger numbers of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students of color, English language learners, who would want to take advantage of vocational programs.”
Under the proposed new regulations, the state would let schools continue to use grades, discipline, attendance, and counselors’ recommendations in making admission decisions, but they could no longer weigh excused absences or minor disciplinary infractions as factors.
Advocates have urged the state to consider using a lottery to select students from among all those meeting a basic standard, such as successful completion of 8th grade. Enrich argued that all of the selective criteria used by vocational schools have been shown in research to have discriminatory effects on protected classes of students. He said deeming their use “essential” is at odds with the goal of having voc schools enroll students of comparable academic background to sending districts.
“Ranking, by definition, isn’t setting a minimum standard that’s essential for participation, rather it’s selecting based on, for instance, how high your grades are,” he said. Enrich said academic ranking of applicants by grades is also inconsistent with one of the premises of vocational schools and the hands-on approach to learning they provide — that they are “most valuable to kids who have less success in academic middle schools.”
The coalition also took issue with the plan in new regulations to have the state examine enrollment data over time and intervene in cases where admission policies “do not comply with applicable state and federal laws and regulations.” The advocacy groups want the state to conduct a thorough review and approval process at the outset for new admission policies adopted following the anticipated change in regulations.
All but two of the regional voc-tech schools have significant enrollment disparities compared with sending districts in all four protected classes of students — students of color, English learners, those with disabilities, and economically disadvantaged students — said Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaboration Education. He said the remaining two schools have disparities on three of the four measures, and nearly four out of five regional voc schools have at least one enrollment disparity adversely affecting a protected group that is greater than 20 percentage points.
“We have a problem of gross inequities, not one of moderate problem,” said French. He said the enrollment disparities require a strong set of reforms to be fixed. “Instead, what we see is a proposed set of regulations that is very lukewarm at best in addressing the problems.”
Lew Finfer, of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a leader of the vocational school advocacy coalition, said the groups have met in recent weeks with 10 of the 11 members of the state education board, and he hopes the panel will consider further changes to the admissions regulations at its meeting next week.Finfer said a third of the members seemed “very sympathetic” to the coalition’s view, a third seemed “open” to the arguments, and a third seemed supportive of the new regulations, as proposed.
“We don’t think it’s a done deal,” he said.