Senator to push voc school admission changes through budget amendment
Cronin calls current policies 'complete violation' federal civil rights standards
SAYING HE’S FRUSTRATED by state inaction over ongoing enrollment inequities from admissions policies at vocational high schools, state Sen. John Cronin has filed an amendment to the Senate budget that would require the schools to use a lottery, rather than selective entry criteria, to choose incoming students.
Vocational school admission policies have become a flashpoint for debate in recent years, with critics charging that the schools are “creaming” higher-performing students and denying seats to students who have struggled in middle school but may benefit the most from the hands-on learning and training that vocational schools offer.
In 2021, four years after advocates began raising the issue, the state board of education adopted new regulations that barred voc-tech schools from using admission criteria that disproportionately limit admission of students in federally protected classes unless they can show those standards are “essential to participation” in the school’s program, and that there are not other equally effective standards that would not have such an effect.
Cronin says the changes have done little to change the disparities in vocational school admissions.
The filing alleged that state vocational school admission regulations, which let schools select students based on grades, attendance, and other factors, are disproportionately denying seats to students of color, English language learners, and special needs students, all of whom are considered protected classes under federal education civil rights law, as well as students from low-income households.
“Schools have failed to police themselves. Superintendents have failed to acknowledge the inequities that are getting worse in their district, and this is a problem that requires executive attention and legislation action,” said Cronin, a Fitchburg Democrat.
Cronin expressed particular disappointment in state education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who he said has failed to enforce the new 2021 regulations. Cronin said vocational schools that Riley previously singled out because of their enrollment disparities have been allowed to continue using selective entry criteria without showing that such screening is “essential” to participation in their programs.
“It’s a complete violation of the civil rights standard,” he said.
Riley’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
According to the February filing with the US Department of Education, 55 percent of students of color who applied to a regional vocational school this school year were accepted, compared with 69 percent of white students. For English learners, the acceptance rate was 44 percent compared with 64 percent of non-English learners. Of students with disabilities, 54 percent were admitted compared with 65 percent of those without disabilities, according to the complaint. For low-income students, the acceptance rate was 54 percent versus 72 percent for students from better-off backgrounds.
The complaint was filed by Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center for Law and Education on behalf of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition and four students who are alleged to have been unfairly shut out of admission to a Massachusetts vocational high school.
He said Senate education committee chair Jason Lewis is supportive of the amendment.
“This is gaining growing attention among leaders across the state,” Cronin said of vocational admissions disparities. “And there’s a new urgency to address it.”