Under new state regulations, vocational and technical schools in Massachusetts will need to recalibrate their admissions systems to prevent what advocates see as decades of discrimination and missed opportunity.
A coalition of groups pushing for change applaud the rule adopted by the State Council for Primary and Secondary Education on Tuesday. But some said it still leaves too much room for exclusion and could give way to violations of federal civil rights law.
There is a strong demand for a place in one of the state’s technical and vocational high schools. A recent state report found that across Massachusetts, more than 18,500 aspiring ninth graders applied for just 10,616 open places, with stiffer competition in some parts of the state (PDF).
And as vocational and technical schools assess candidate grades, disciplinary and attendance records, and teacher recommendations, they tend to block disproportionate numbers of students of color, learners of color from their waiting lists. English and low income students.
The new regulation aims to change that. It prohibits schools from taking into account students’ excused absences from school or “minor” disciplinary incidents in admission decisions. And it asks schools to publish admission plans in line with Federal Title VI anti-discrimination guidelines each fall.
Ahead of the board vote on Tuesday, Education Secretary Jim Peyser approved the settlement, saying it “dramatically changes the landscape” around vocational school admissions.
“There is now a positive obligation on school committees to adopt non-discriminatory policies and to react proactively whenever there is evidence that there is a disparate impact,” said Peyser.
Speakers from the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which had pushed for admissions reform, were more subdued in their praise.
“We are concerned that many children face the exact same problem that their older siblings have faced for two decades.”
Peter Enrich, President of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts
“It was a step in the right direction – but a relatively small step – towards solving a very serious problem,” said Peter Enrich, chairman of the Massachusetts Progressive Democrats, who was part of that coalition.
Enrich said the previous system – which granted scarce professional places to students who had felt relatively comfortable in traditional classrooms – made “absolutely no sense, from a political point of view. “, and therefore welcomed this change.
But Enrich, the former general counsel for the state’s finance and administration ministry, said the new rule was still insufficient: leaving schools to comply with complex federal civil rights protections and not putting in place that a “very flexible process” for the state to deal with cases of disparate impact as they arise.
“We are concerned that many children face the exact same problem that their older siblings have faced for two decades,” Enrich said.
Many coalition members argued that a simple lottery would be a fairer way to ensure that vocational schools welcome willing applicants looking for an alternative mode of public education – and would more clearly stay on the safe side of the relevant federal law.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Peyser argued that nationwide, many vocational schools operate selective admission systems “without objection” from federal education officials. “The presence of admission criteria themselves does not necessarily imply discrimination or disparate impact,” he said. “It’s the implementation of those policies, the details, that matter.
Dinanyili Paulino, another member of the coalition, said she was still concerned that the young students she works with may still be “discouraged” by the persistence of selective admission systems separating them from vocational education.
Paulino, chief operating officer of Chelsea-based nonprofit La Colaborativa, said the pandemic had drawn attention to the dearth of well-paying jobs available to immigrant-rich communities like Chelsea, Everett. and Revere, and the economic disasters that may result.
Just this week, said Paulino, an 18-year-old working with La Colaborativa dropped out of high school to help her mother with the housework.
She says, ‘I want to finish school, but I really need the money, “Paulino said.” So now she wakes up now at 2 am and goes to clean the buildings with her mother. La This particular youngster’s situation would have been much better if she had been in a professional setting.
Paulino said as she celebrated the new rule, she thinks policymakers in the state don’t understand cases like this: “Why don’t we turn our attention to young people who not only want and desire to go learn in vocational schools, but who needs them? “
Under the new regulations, schools will be required to submit their scheduled admissions program by October 1 of this year.
Enrich said he hoped the settlement would work as advertised, but that he and like-minded advocates would explore other options – including a push for federal litigation – if that wasn’t enough.