CRITICS OF VOCATIONAL school admissions in the state are now literally making a federal case of the issue with yesterday’s filing of a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education alleging discriminatory practices in the admissions policies at Massachusetts vocational high schools.
It’s another step in a long-running debate that started at the local level, and nowhere has that debate been more contentious than in New Bedford, the place where the push to reform state admission policies first began more than five years ago – and where it continues to inflame passions.
State regulations allow vocational schools to rank applicants based on middle school grades, attendance, and other factors. Admission to the schools has become increasingly competitive, with more than 18,000 applicants vying for 10,616 seats in the 2020-21 school year.
Critics have argued that the use of selective admission standards are locking out many of the students who would benefit most from hands-on learning and the pathway the schools provide to a skilled trade career. Those who struggle with traditional classroom academics, they say, are exactly the kind of students for whom vocational schools might be a good fit. Instead, many regional vocational schools in the state have become the preferred choice of college-bound students.
In the complaint filed yesterday with federal officials, the Vocational Education Justice Coalition cited disparities in acceptance rates at regional vocational schools for four groups protected by federal civil rights or education 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.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell has been sounding the alarm over those kinds of disparities for years. The selective admissions criteria are “leaving out in the cold the types of students who had most benefited from vocational education” in the past, Mitchell said in 2017 when he began the push to raise attention to the issue. “Someone who for whatever reason might not have thrived in a mainstream classroom but who could take apart a car—those who fit that profile are the ones who would thrive in a vocational setting, and those types of kids are not getting in now.”
Mitchell has been calling on Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School to abandon its use of selective admission criteria. But he’s facing resistance not only from the school, which serves three communities on the South Coast and operates independently of the local school districts, but from New Bedford’s own city council.
The three communities served by the school – New Bedford, Dartmouth, and Fairhaven – get appointees on the vocational school board. But Mitchell’s efforts to name a board member who favors reform of the admission policies have twice been blocked by the city council.
After one nominee was shot down, he put forward another candidate, Carol Pimental, but her nomination was rejected last month in a 5-4 vote. Councilors voting against Pimental made it clear that their vote was based on her support for moving to a lottery admission system that would give all students an equal shot at a voc-tech seat. (New Bedford voc-tech has moved to award a portion of seats by lottery, but critics say that’s not enough.)
Two city councilors were absent for the vote so Pimental’s nomination could be brought back to the council. In any case, Mitchell told New Bedford Light columnist Jack Spillane, he will not put forward any nominee who doesn’t support further admission reforms. “I’m not changing my approach at all,” he said.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s civil rights filing could mean the issue of admission policies at voc-tech schools gets taken out of the hands of local officials.
In his account last month of the New Bedford standoff between Mitchell and the city council, Spillane suggested as much, offering a pretty accurate eye toward the next chapter in the vocational school admissions saga.
“If the council continues to hold out on Mitchell’s nomination, it seems like every day it will bring the city a step closer to a civil rights lawsuit over the admissions policies,” Spillane wrote.
“A group named the Vocational Education Justice Coalition has already threatened a suit statewide, saying they are not convinced the steps the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has already taken — which include eliminating minor disciplinary and excused attendance as reasons for penalizing applying students — is enough. They have argued for the lottery system as necessary to address a growing and major inequity in vocational education across the state.”
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Getting another set of eyes: Gov. Maura Healey is appointing a non-MBTA team of technical and legal experts to review the situation at the CRRC plant in Springfield, where assembly of new Red and Orange Line trains is running way behind schedule.
– Healey said she learned about problems at the plant two to three weeks ago, even though production has been shut down since June so the China-based CRRC could address its manufacturing problems. T officials now say some new car deliveries will resume this month, but at half the pace called for in the contract.
– The governor also promised greater transparency at the MBTA on everything from slow zones to accidents to contract delays. Read more.
Vocational school challenge: Education advocates in Massachusetts file a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education, alleging the way seats are allotted at vocational schools excludes students from vulnerable populations protected under federal law. Vocational schools have been on a roll in Massachusetts, but their growth has come with concerns that students who could perhaps benefit the most from their offerings are not getting in. The lawsuit calls for ending the use of selective admissions criteria (middle school grades, attendance records, discipline history, and, in some cases, guidance counselor recommendations and interviews) and lawmakers are pushing legislation that would base admissions on a lottery system. Read more.
Another hurdle cleared: A Massachusetts-financed power line that would import hydro-electricity from Quebec into Maine clears another hurdle put in place by NextEra, the owner of the Seabrook nuclear power plant. NextEra was also behind efforts to block the power line with a referendum in Maine. Read more.
Summer learning: Chris Smith of Boston After School & Beyond and Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard and a board member of Boston After School & Beyond, say summer learning is key to recovering academic ground lost during the pandemic. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
All but six towns impacted by the new MBTA Communities law submitted plans by this week’s deadline outlining how they’ll implement new zoning requirements to allow more housing. (Boston Globe)
Boston’s outgoing public safety advisor reflects on how violence has changed in the city. (WBUR)
Nurses at Anna Jacques Hospital in Newburyport deliver a petition to management seeking better pay. (Eagle-Tribune)
A Harvard program and affiliated organization have been bringing Ukrainian doctors, including an intrepid 28-year-old anesthesiologist, to Boston for training in trauma and disaster medicine to aid their efforts to treat victims of the war in their country. (Boston Globe)
Former Republican state rep Lenny Mirra, who was declared the loser in his November reelection bid by 1 vote, says he’ll accept the results but calls the refusal of a special House committee to review several suspect ballots in the race a “totally corrupt” and “blatantly partisan move.” (Boston Herald)
We haven’t had much snow, but Boston and some other school districts have essentially declared today a “cold day” and canceled classes because of the big chill setting in. (Boston Herald)
Harvard Kennedy School misinformation expert Joan Donovan is being forced to leave by Dean Douglas Elmendorf. Donovan has until 2024 to wrap up her technology and social change project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. (Harvard Crimson)
Planners explore options for improving traffic, pedestrian, and bicycle flow in downtown Hyannis, including a square rotary. (Cape Cod Times)
A taxi company in North Adams gets a slap on the wrist – a 30-day probation period – for using drivers unlicensed to operate taxis, including a 16-year-old. (Berkshire Eagle)
Four former Boston police officers are facing a new federal charge in connection with a case in which they were already being charged with fraudulent claiming of overtime pay. (Boston Herald)
The Sunday Eagle-Tribune will now be delivered and sold in stores on Saturday. (Eagle-Tribune)