MORE THAN THREE YEARS after calling on the state to revamp what they said were unfair and discriminatory admission practices at regional vocational schools, a group of Massachusetts mayors says little has changed – and they are calling on the new Healey administration to take decisive action on the issue.
Admission policies at the schools have been the focus of controversy for several years, as local officials, civil rights groups, and other advocates decried state regulations that allow voc-tech schools to use selective criteria, such as middle school grades and attendance records, in admitting students. The result, they say, is that many of the students who would benefit most from hands-on learning and training in skilled trades – who may have struggled with a traditional classroom structure – are being shut out of that opportunity.
In a 2020 letter to then-Education Secretary Jim Peyser, the mayors called on the state to institute a lottery-based admission system at vocational schools that would give all students an equal chance at a seat. “Unfortunately, that did not happen,” the group of 25 mayors wrote in a letter this month to the new Healey administration education secretary, Patrick Tutwiler. Instead, they say, the state education department “instituted a set of half-measures that have failed to end pervasive discrimination in vocational admissions.”
The state “has known about this problem for years. It has failed at every turn to seize responsibility for it,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, who has led the effort by municipal leaders demanding changes to the admissions policies.
Vocational schools, many of which are oversubscribed and have waiting lists, are able to consider applicants’ middle school grades, attendance, and discipline record in their admissions process. Voc-tech schools say the policies are critical to ensuring that their students are prepared for the demands of the schools, where they must take standard academic courses along with rotating through different vocational subjects.
Responding to criticism that the admissions policies were disproportionately excluding students of color, English language learners, special education students, and those from low-income households, the state tweaked the regulations in 2021. The new regulations prohibit schools from considering excused absences or minor discipline infractions in the admissions scoring.
But a coalition of civil rights and community groups said the changes did little to change big disparities in admission of students from groups protected by federal law. Earlier this year, they filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education.
According to the filing, 55 percent of students of color who applied to a regional vocational school for the 2022-23 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, and for low-income students, the acceptance rate was 54 percent versus 72 percent for students from better-off backgrounds.
Though the mayors and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition say they’re hoping a change in administrations will bring a change in policy, the Healey administration is so far treading carefully on the issue.
“We are committed to continuing to promote broad and equitable access to career and technical education for our students and families,” Tutwiler, the education secretary, said in a statement in response to the mayors’ letter. “In this effort, we continue to look at data and engage with stakeholders to identify and address any barriers to access.”
Lew Finfer, a leader of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, said the group has had two meetings with Tutwiler on the issue, the first in May and a second in August. “He mostly listened and said he wanted to look at more data,” said Finfer. Finfer said he doubts enrollment data for the new school year will show change from the disparities seen in last year’s entering class, when the new regulations were already in place.
“For those who care most about equity in education, this should be recognized for what it is, which is a glaring inequity,” said Mitchell, the New Bedford mayor. “Under the last administration, the state punted on it. Now the question is, what’s the state going to do about it?”