End discriminatory admissions policies in vocational schools

Senate bill and budget amendment would strike a blow for educational justice

SHOULD AN EIGHTH-GRADE student with a low grade-point average and/or low attendance, due to feeling disengaged from the school and curriculum, be excluded from enrolling in a Massachusetts vocational high school even though they may excel in a hands-on carpentry, plumbing, or electrician shop? That is the situation that currently exists in almost all of our regional vocational high schools. Students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English Learners are enrolled at disproportionately lower rates than their more privileged peers.

In 2003, the year that the state’s MCAS tests became a high school graduation requirement, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary & Secondary Education approved vocational school admissions regulations that enabled these schools to select students by rank ordering applicants using grades, attendance, discipline record, guidance counselor recommendations, and interviews. Research has found that all these factors can result in bias by race, income, disability, and language.

Senate Bill 257, filed by Sen. John Cronin, would mandate a lottery selection process for every vocational school in the state that has more applicants than seats, a bill that would bring greater equity to vocational school admissions. These are public schools. No other public schools in Massachusetts, except the examination schools in Boston, have selective admissions policies.

In his recent CommonWealth commentary, Steven Sharek, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators (MAVA), decried the aim of this bill as well as the filing of Senate budget amendment #771, also by Sen. Cronin, that also seeks to change vocational schools admissions policies to a lottery. Amendment #771 will be taken up by the Massachusetts State Senate this week.

In his commentary on behalf of MAVA, Sharek makes a number of questionable claims in order to defend the right of vocational schools to select students for admission using discriminatory criteria.

MAVA claim: There has been no public hearing about the bill. In fact, a similar version of this bill was filed in the last legislative session and did receive a public hearing in the Legislature. The selective admissions criteria used by vocational schools and the option to use a lottery were also debated by the state board of education at several meetings over the past couple of years.

MAVA claim: Over the last two years, 97 percent of vocational schools have made changes in their admissions policies. This statement implies that these changes have made a positive difference in bringing greater equity in admissions. In fact, the disparities in admissions grew larger when comparing admissions from the 2021-2022 school year with the 2022-2023 school year:

The result is that students from historically marginalized groups are being denied access to a pathway that could lead them to higher salaried careers and a middle-class life.

MAVA claim: An Act to Improve Access, Opportunity, and Capacity in Massachusetts Vocational-Technical Education  (H.538/S.274) “would ensure us better access to middle school students to spread the word about the value of a voc-tech education.” We have had countless numbers of students tell us they didn’t even bother to apply to a vocational school, or their guidance counselor told them to not bother applying, because the selective criteria would prevent them from being offered a seat. Recruitment doesn’t help if students feel the deck is already stacked against them.

MAVA claim: The problem is there are not enough vocational school seats, rather than the admissions process. We agree that the state should increase the number of vocational schools in order to address current demand. However, it is not educational justice if you expand the number of schools in which students from historically marginalized groups continue to be disproportionately denied admissions due to discriminatory policies. Further, the creation of additional vocational schools will require state allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars and take multiple years to design, approve, and construct, leaving students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English Learners without equitable opportunities for enrolling in a vocational school all those years.

MAVA claim: A lottery would result in greater inequities in admissions. Over the past year, one of the state’s 28 regional vocational high schools, Assabet Valley Regional Vocational School, changed its admissions policy to be a lottery. As a result, the percent of eligible students of color who applied for a vocational seat rose by 15 percentage points, the percent of students with disabilities who applied rose by two percentage points, and the percent of English learners who applied rose by 17 percentage points. In other words, just by eliminating discriminatory admissions criteria, a greater percent of students from historically marginalized groups applied. Similarly, the percent of students of color who were offered a seat rose by six percentage points, the percent of low-income students offered a seat rose by four percentage points, and the percent of students with disabilities rose by two percentage points.

Federal law prohibits vocational schools from using admission criteria “that have the effect of disproportionately excluding persons of a particular race, color, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability unless they demonstrate that (1) such criteria have been validated as essential to participation in vocational programs; and (2) alternative equally valid criteria that do not have such a disproportionate adverse effect are unavailable.”

No Massachusetts vocational school that uses selective criteria meets this federal standard. The Vocational Education Justice Coalition (VEJC) engaged in many efforts over several years to convince the state board of education to change their policies to meet the federal admissions standard, but they have so far refused to take any significant action. That is why in February 2023 the coalition, represented by the Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center for Law and Education, filed a civil rights complaint against this discriminatory admissions policy with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. VEJC represents about 20 civil rights, legal, trade union, business, community, and advocacy organizations.

For a state that seeks to be a standard bearer for civil rights and equity, it is a travesty that we have state policies that condone, and vocational schools that continue to uphold, discriminatory admissions policies that deny students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners equitable access to our vocational schools.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Dan French

President, Citizens for Public Schools
Meet the Author

Lew Finfer

Guest Contributor, Mass. Communities Action Network
Andrea Shepphard-Lomba is director of United Interfaith Act of Southeast Massachusetts. Dan French is president of the board of Citizens for Public Schools. Lew Finfer is the former director of Massachusetts Communities in Action. This commentary is on behalf of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition.