Suit alleges bias in Massachusetts' vocational technical school admissions

State Sen. John Cronin, D-Lunenburg, discusses the state's unfair vocational education admission policies that work against students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities, during a press conference and lawsuit announcement Thursday at the Statehouse in Boston.
State Sen. John Cronin, D-Lunenburg, discusses the state's unfair vocational education admission policies that work against students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities, during a press conference and lawsuit announcement Thursday at the Statehouse in Boston.

BOSTON — State education officials use criteria that allows exclusionary admissions practices at vocational technical schools, leaving behind students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities, according to a new lawsuit filed by a coalition of educational advocacy groups.

The coalition claims the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) allows schools to reject students based on grades, attendance, discipline and guidance counselor recommendations, which they say disproportionately affects students in protected groups.

After graduating from middle school, Chelsea High School junior Josue Castellon wanted to attend Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School. But Castellon's guidance counselor discouraged him from applying "because of a reason unknown," the student said at a press conference Thursday morning at the Statehouse.

"I wanted to define my own reality, so I continued my application regardless of what my counselor said, and I submitted it. A few months go by and I get a letter from a vocational school and they said, 'We're sorry to deny your application,' " Castellon said. "I was filled with embarrassment and defeat… I was worried that I wouldn't have the same opportunities for my future and I was nervous about going to the traditional high school."

Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center of Law and Education filed the federal civil rights complaint against the department on Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The suit was filed on behalf of four students from Chelsea and Gardner, and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition (VEJC), made up of 20 education advocacy, civil rights and union groups.

Voke programs, demand to attend high

Vocational programs have become increasingly popular in Massachusetts in recent years. In the 2020-2021 school year 18,500 rising ninth graders applied for 10,616 available seats in the state's vocational schools, according to the complaint.

For the current school year, 55% of students of color who applied to a vocational program were admitted, compared to approximately 69% of white students, and 54% of students from economically disadvantaged families received offers compared to 72% of their peers, the complaint says.

For students who are English learners, 44% who applied were accepted compared to 64% of native English speakers, and 54% of students with disabilities received admissions offers as opposed to a 65% acceptance rate of those who are not disabled.

Massachusetts has world-class vocational schools, said Sen. John Cronin, D-Lunenburg. The demand to get a placement in a vocational program is high, he said. Competitive entry into the schools, the use of disciplinary records, academic achievement, guidance counselor and teacher recommendations, create a barrier for the state’s most vulnerable youngsters.

Eighteen school districts, including Cronin's, feed students into the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical High School, or Monty Tech, in Fitchburg. Of those eligible eighth graders, 44% are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Cronin said. When youngsters from economically disadvantaged background apply for admission, 37% are accepted.

However, when students in the remaining 56% apply, the whiter, more economically advantaged students, 65% of those who apply, are accepted, Cronin said, who called the discrepancy in admittances a glaring inequity and urged the state to close the opportunity gap.

“This has big implications for creating economic opportunity for the area’s working poor households,” Cronin said. “We need to stop treating vocational schools as if they were private schools. There is no substitute for a seat in a trade school.”

Lottery system suggested

Cronin said he is in favor of using a lottery system to fill the 10,000-plus seats in the state's 28 public vocational high schools.

Currently, the only criteria for acceptance into the programs should be qualifying for promotion from eighth grade to ninth grade after successfully completing elementary education.

Systematically excluding members of protected classes — students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners and economically disadvantaged youth from acceptance into vocational programs — excludes them from future economic gains, future economic stability and an entry into the middle class, Cronin said.

"No other public school system is allowed to do this, to selectively choose who enters their doors for educational opportunities," said Andrea Shepphard Lomba, executive director of United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts, which is a member of the coalition. "We are saying today that this is unjust and it's a violation of our students' and our families' civil rights."

The coalition says DESE regulations approved in 2021 to address admissions policies "made only minimal changes, and DESE continues to grant CVTE (Career and Vocational Technical Education) schools' substantial discretion over their admission procedures."

The 2021 regulations were intended to "promote equitable access," by removing the requirement that grades, attendance, discipline records and counselor recommendations be used as admissions criteria.

DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said at the time that his department planned to be "very forceful" in cases of non-compliance and could in some cases "order changes to admission policies that may include requiring a lottery" system for admittance.

The coalition argued Thursday the DESE's regulation changes were too broad and have not been enforced to make a significant change.

Since the 2021 regulation change was adopted, one of the 28 CVTE schools in Massachusetts has moved away from old admissions criteria to a lottery, the coalition says.

Assabet Valley utilizes admissions lottery

Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough is currently the lone vocational school using the coalition's recommended system, and showed an overall increase in applicants from all but one protected student group, and the percentage of students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities offered seats increased, VEJC said.

The lawsuit does not specify that it is seeking a lottery system, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights attorney Mirian Albert said. The two legal groups are asking the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to initiate an investigation that finds these admission policies unlawful under federal civil rights law and the American Disabilities Act, she said.

When asked if the Department of Education could withhold funds to DESE until it implements an "equitable system" as laid out in the complaint, Albert said "DESE being a recipient of federal funds, it has to comply with civil rights obligations."

"If DESE is not complying with that, you know, that would be a consequence," she said.

DESE received $12,789,742 in federal grants from the USED in 2020-2021, according to the complaint.

The legal action is paired with two new bills filed in the House and Senate by Cronin and state Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford.

The bills would replace the admittance criteria that includes attendance records, guidance counselor reports, behavior complaints and grades with a lottery system. The Senate docket calls for a "blind lottery," while Cabral's legislation requires a "weighted lottery," which would be weighted towards "protected classes, including but not limited to, students of color, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and English language learners."

Both bills would also create waitlists for students who did not get a spot from the lottery.

"Our position is not radical. Public schools should no longer be able to use private school admissions criteria to systematically discriminate and keep the most vulnerable eighth graders in our state out of our trade schools," Cronin said. "So let's stop denying kids from disadvantaged backgrounds a pathway to the middle class."

Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators Steve Sharek said the organization is committed to giving any student who wants to go to vocational school the opportunity to do so.

"There simply aren't enough seats to meet the growing demand," he said in a statement. "Our schools are very serious about expanding access to a more diverse population of students. We’re committed to improving our admissions procedures. Nearly 97 percent of the regional vocational-technical and agricultural high schools in Massachusetts have made changes in their admissions policies, practices, or staffing. We’re seeing improvement.

"We need two things: (1) a bit more time to gauge what impact all these changes are making and (2) better access to middle schools so we can inform all students about the kind of education we offer. In some cases, we have only limited access to students in some of these protected classes."

Worcester Telegram & Gazette reporter Kinga Borondy contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Lawsuit alleges bias in Massachusetts vocational technical schools admissions