State ed board approves vocational school admission changes
New regulations aimed at strengthening equity in enrollment patterns
OVER THE OBJECTIONS of advocates who said the changes did not go far enough, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved new regulations Tuesday morning aimed at creating more equity in admissions to vocational high schools.
The changes come after years of complaints that vocational schools were shutting out Black and Latino students, English language learners, and other disadvantaged groups through their use of selective admission criteria that weigh student grades, attendance, and discipline history.
Two years ago, state education Commissioner Jeff Riley asked a handful of vocational schools with particularly stark enrollment disparities when it comes to race, English language learners, special education students, and those from low-income households to make changes to their admission policies. “We gave the vocational schools an opportunity to make changes and we didn’t feel that they had done a substantial enough job at doing that, and so today we’re asking for the ability to intervene, if necessary, to make sure that children get a fair opportunity,” Riley said in advocating for the board to approve the regulatory changes.
The new regulations say vocational schools cannot use any admissions criteria that have a disproportionate impact on the enrollment of demographic groups protected by state and federal law unless they can show they 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.
Members of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, made up of community and civil rights groups which called for the state to instead have oversubscribed vocational schools use a lottery to admit students, demonstrated outside the state education headquarters in Malden prior to the meeting.
The board approved the changes unanimously with one member, Mary Ann Stewart, voting present.
Vocational schools must develop new enrollment policies to take effect for the 2022-23 school year.
A coalition of community and civil rights advocacy groups had pushed for changes in the proposed regulations, arguing that allowing vocational schools to continue to rank students based on grades and other factors closely tied to race and other demographic variables is at odds with the goal of ensuring equitable access to vocational schools.
Data show disparities between all of the more than two dozen regional vocational high schools and the local sending districts in protected classes of students, including students of color, English language learners, special education students, and those from low-income households. Admission to vocational high schools has become increasingly competitive, with many enrolling high-achieving students who go on to four-year colleges and don’t pursue vocational trade occupations, as was often the case in the past.
State Sen John Cronin, a Lunenburg Democrat, told the board prior to its vote that he lacked confidence that the changes would bring the enrollment equity that has been touted as their goal. “I have absolutely no doubt that this board and [the state education department] are committed to equitable access to vocational training in the Commonwealth, and each proposed regulatory change has been made in good faith,” he said. “However, I do retain doubt that these modifications, as proposed, drive change evenly and with the requisite urgency necessary across the Commonwealth.”
Cronin raised particular doubts about having vocational schools themselves, which have challenged the idea that current policies are driving disparities in enrollment demographics, in charge of developing their own revised entry standards. “What troubles me is these proposed regulatory changes grant stakeholders who do not acknowledge current admissions criteria role in creating opportunity gaps the responsibility to close them,” he said.
Advocates have argued that meeting that standard won’t necessarily prove that enrollment policies aren’t having a disproportionate impact on protected student groups, since those students might apply to vocational schools at even greater rates than their make-up in the sending districts.
Stewart raised that possibility in discussion among board members before their vote and asked whether that would trigger intervention by the state.
Caitlin Looby, the general counsel for the state education department, didn’t answer directly. “We’re going to be looking at all the data, and we’re going to be having a very open relationship with schools,” she said.
Education Secretary Jim Peyser said advocates were wrong in suggesting that use of selective criteria will necessarily run afoul of federal civil rights laws. He pointed out that such standards have been in place for years in many states without any objection from federal officials. He said those states include Connecticut, where US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona served as state commissioner before his appointment earlier this year to President Biden’s cabinet.
“As long as we oversee the process in a rigorous and consistent basis, I think these regulations will move us significantly toward ensuring that all students have access to vocational-technical education should they want it,” Peyser said.
The board’s discussion of the new regulations was interrupted by audience members at the meeting who were apparently not happy with state mask mandates for students at schools this past year. The interruptions forced the board to take a short recess during the vocational school discussion. When the meeting resumed, the protestors began banging on windows from outside the building.
Leaders of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition said they were glad to see their efforts generate change in state regulations, but expressed disappointment that the state didn’t eliminate student ranking for admissions altogether.“They didn’t go as far as we wanted,” said Lew Finfer, a leader of the group. He noted, however, that Riley was forceful in vowing to monitor implementation of the new standards and take action, if necessary. “We have to be really vigilant,” Finfer said of the coalition. “Follow-up is going to be really crucial to how close he is to living up to the commitments he made verbally.”