MORE THAN FIVE YEARS after sounding the alarm over admission policies at the state’s vocational high schools that they say are locking out students who would benefit most from hands-on education, advocates are taking their case to the US Department of Education, filing a federal civil rights complaint aimed at forcing the state to revamp the admissions system at the schools. 

In a filing Thursday with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, lawyers say the state is allowing the use of selective admission criteria to award seats at vocational schools that “disproportionately and unjustifiably exclude students from vulnerable populations” who are “protected from discrimination under federal law.” The complaint calls for the withholding of federal funds to Massachusetts vocational schools until they come into compliance with civil rights laws.

The complaint charges that vocational school admission policies, 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. 

The plaintiffs in the complaint, filed by attorneys from Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center for Law and Education, are the Vocational Education Justice Coalition and four students who are alleged to have been unfairly shut out of admission to a vocational high school. 

The move comes two years after state education officials modified admission rules for vocational schools in response to growing criticism. Advocates said at that time that the changes did not go far enough in addressing disparities in vocational school enrollment patterns. They called for seats to be awarded by lottery, giving all interested students an equal chance at admission, and they raised the specter of taking legal action if the problems that had been identified persisted. 

The state’s vocational-technical high schools were once regarded as second-tier “dumping grounds” for students who struggled with traditional academic learning at district high schools. Following passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, vocational school leaders voiced concern that their students would have trouble passing the high-stakes 10th grade MCAS exam introduced by the law as a graduation requirement. 

But the schools redoubled their focus on core academics, in tandem with the hands-on skill training they offer, and their students have performed well on the test, with some vocational high schools even scoring higher on MCAS than district high schools in their region. 

That has not, however, been solely a function of determined instructional effort. In 2003, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a major change in regulations that allowed vocational schools to begin using selective admission criteria to choose students when they receive more applications than seats available. 

The schools all adopted scoring systems that accepted students on combination of middle school grades, attendance record, discipline history, and, in some cases, guidance counselor recommendations and interviews. The schools have grown increasingly popular, with far more applicants than available seats at most regional vocational schools. 

“To their credit, they have worked hard on academics and done better. But it’s also a lot easier to do better when you pick the students,” said Lew Finfer, a leader of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, a group of 20 community, labor, and civil rights organizations that has spearheaded efforts to end the selective admission policies at vocational schools. 

For the 2020-21 school year, more than 18,500 students applied to enter vocational high schools as 9th graders, but there were fewer than 11,000 available seats, according to the complaint.

In 2021, under growing pressure from the coalition and elected officials in several communities, the state board of education approved changes that prohibit the schools from using excused absences or minor disciplinary infractions in their scoring rubric. The new regulations also specified that the 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. 

While applicants scoring higher under the selective admission criteria might perform better than students with lower scores, the coalition argued that is not proof that such a system is “essential” to participation in vocational education.

The new regulations took effect for admission to the current 2022-23 school year. Of the state’s 28 regional vocational high schools, which each serve multiple communities and effectively operate as independent school districts, 27 continued to use selective admission criteria. 

The complaint filed Thursday says admission data under the new regulations show continued large gaps in serving groups protected under federal civil rights law. 

According to the filing, 55 percent of students of color who applied to a regional vocational school this 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. 

Acceptance rates at Massachusetts regional vocational high schools for the 2022-23 school year. (Source: Vocational Education Justice Coalition)

The complaint says those figures underplay the problems with the admission system, since many students from protected groups don’t even bother to apply to vocational schools under the current system. The complaint says the data on acceptance rate differences ”only scratches the surface of the disparities caused by using the Exclusionary Admissions Criteria, as it does not reflect students who are discouraged from applying to [vocational] schools in the first place, knowing that they are unlikely to be accepted given the inequitable admissions criteria.” 

State Sen. John Cronin, a Fitchburg Democrat, is co-sponsoring legislation with Rep. Antonio Cabral that would institute a lottery system in place of the use of selective criteria in vocational admissions. 

The current system allows vocational schools to “apply private school admission standards to public schools,” said Cronin, “and the effect of that is them saying our public schools are not going to take part in the work of educating kids with poor grades, kids with poor attendance records, and the effect of that is hurting the kids in our community who could benefit most from a skilled trade to enter the workforce.” 

The civil rights complaint says the state education department is “well aware” of the discriminatory effect of the current admission system “and has allowed it to persist for years.” The filing asks the federal education department to order an end to the use of selective criteria unless it can be shown they are essential to participation in vocational programs and no “less-discriminatory, equally valid alternatives exist.”  

State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley declined to comment, saying the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is reviewing the complaint.

Steven Sharek, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, said the schools are committed to improving their admissions procedures and that nearly all the regional vocational schools have made changes in admissions “policies, practices, or staffing.” He called for more time “to see what impact all these changes are making” as well as better access to middle schools to make all students aware of vocational school options. 

Finfer said the Healey administration is now “the most important player” in the ongoing debate. “Are they going to step up and ask for change or not?” he said. Finfer said the new governor and her education secretary, Patrick Tutwiler, could have a significant impact on whether the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education revisits the issue and considers moving to a lottery system for awarding seats at vocational schools. 

Cronin said the existing system runs counter to the entire thrust of efforts to close opportunity and achievement gaps in public schools. “It’s a radical departure from the mission of our public schools to apply private school admission standards to keep out the most vulnerable parts of our population,” he said. “For a state that says it wants to make investments in social mobility and distribute opportunity equally to our most vulnerable populations, what the hell are we doing? To fail these kids who are growing up in poor families and working-class families, and to make a policy choice to exclude them from a meal ticket to the middle class, is a radical failure of our public education system.”