Debating vocational school admissions policies

IN THE END, it comes down to a question of how to allocate a scarce public resource when the demand exceeds the supply. In this case, the scarce resource is seats at the state’s vocational-technical high schools, where there are roughly twice as many applicants as there are slots available each year.
Should vocational high schools be able to maintain the current policy of selecting students using criteria like middle school grades and attendance record, or should a lottery be used to give all applicants an equal shot at attending a voc-tech high school? That is the crux of a debate that has been raging across the state for almost six years – and it’s the focus of this week’s Codcast.
Taking up the debate are Karen Maguire, the superintendent of the Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School in Franklin, who defended the current policy, and state Sen. John Cronin of Fitchburg, who is pushing for a lottery admission system to be instituted.
Vocational schools were once dismissed as a second tier option for students who struggled academically in traditional high schools. But Massachusetts voc-tech high schools have surged in popularity in recent years, with many now boasting a reputation for both top-notch academics and quality vocational instruction that can lead to a career in a skilled trade.
Critics say that by allowing the schools to screen applicants, state policy is shutting out some of the very students who would benefit most from more hands-on learning – middle schools who may have struggled with traditional academics.
Earlier this month, they turned up the heat, filing a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education charging that the selective admission standards are discriminating against low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and special education students, all of whom get accepted at voc-tech schools at lower rates than their counterparts not in these groups.
Whether selective entry standards are maintained or the state moves to a lottery, we “will still have 10,000 students that’ll be on the outside looking in no matter how you shuffle the seats,” said Maguire, citing the need to add more vocational school seats to meet the demand. She said a lottery might be “perceived as a politically expedient process” and “make people feel like we’ve done something,” but it doesn’t solve the bigger problem.
Cronin said he agrees with the need to grow the state’s vocational school sector. But in the meantime, he said, it’s imperative to address squarely the issue of who gets the limited supply of available seats.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge that the kids on the outside looking in right now are the working poor. I think what a lottery would do is make the system fair,” said Cronin.
He said there are about 2,000 8th graders eligible each year to apply to the voc-tech school in his district, Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School. Cronin said the acceptance rate is 37 percent for the 44 percent of 8th graders who come from low-income households, while it’s roughly 65 percent among the 56 percent of students from higher-income backgrounds. “I think we need to re-center our admissions policies to really focus on the potential that vocational schools have to create and provide economic opportunity to the working poor in our communities,” he said.
Maguire said critics have misrepresented voc-tech schools as “trying to be Harvard.” She said the admissions criteria “allow students to demonstrate that they’re truly interested” in a vocational school. “It’s a motivator to the students that are in seventh and eighth grade,” she said. “They know they have to come to school, they know that they have to work their best.”
New stories from CommonWealth magazine
Loophole losses: Millions of dollars that would otherwise flow into state coffers from a new tax on higher earners may be lost due to loophole, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. The left-learning center says married couples may skirt the new 4 percent surcharge on income over $1 million by filing separate state returns, while continuing to reap the benefits most couples enjoy from filing a joint federal return.
-Unlike many states, Massachusetts does not require couples filing joint federal returns to do the same on their state taxes. Because the same $1 million threshold for the new “millionaires tax” applies to individuals and couples filing joint returns, couples with combined income over that amount might be able to avoid the tax by filing separate state returns.
-The MassBudget report estimates that high earners seizing on the loophole could shave 20 percent off the revenue the state would otherwise bring in through the new tax, dubbed the “Fair Share Amendment” by its backers. That could mean $200 million, based on state leaders’ recent revenue forecast for fiscal year 2024 that included $1 billion from the new tax.
-Lawmakers are scrambling to try to close the loophole, with bills filed last month in the House and Senate that would require couples to file a joint state return if they are filing federal taxes jointly. Read more.
Feds waive taxes: The IRS has ruled that most Massachusetts tax filers do not need to declare as income any rebate checks they got as a result of an obscure 1986 tax-cap law that kicked in last year when state revenues exceeded a benchmark established by the voter-approved measure. Read more.
Clean energy is delivering: Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power, says clean energy generators are already delivering when it comes to helping the transition away from fossil fuels. While lots of power generators switched to burning oil on Christmas Eve when an arctic blast sent temperatures plummeting – and natural gas prices soaring – Barton said hydropower “came to rescue” and played a key role in keeping the regional electric grid operating. Read more. energy is delivering: Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power, says clean energy generators are already delivering when it comes to helping the transition away from fossil fuels. While lots of power generators switched to burning oil on Christmas Eve when an arctic blast sent temperatures plummeting – and natural gas prices soaring – Barton said hydropower “came to rescue” and played a key role in keeping the regional electric grid operating. Read more.
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