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Complaint alleges exclusionary vocational school admissions policies in Massachusetts

Jeffrey Riley, Charlie Baker, Bill Belichick
Steven Senne
Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley.

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 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 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 his guidance counselor discouraged him from applying "because of a reason unknown," the student said at a press conference on Thursday morning at the State House.

"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, made up of 20 education advocacy, civil rights and union groups.

Vocational programs have become increasingly popular in Massachusetts in recent years. In the 2020-2021 school year 18,500 rising 9th 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.

"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 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 that the department's regulation changes were too broad and have not been enforced to make a significant change.

"[DESE] did mandate that all vocational technical schools needed to change their admissions policy, they needed to reformulate it and resubmit it to the state," Shepphard Lomba said. "However, they left the regulation very broad, and said that the new admissions policies just needed to be in line with the civil rights of the students and it needed to be non-discriminatory."

The coalition is advocating for a lottery system for admissions, which they say is the most equitable way to give out spots at the schools.

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.

The Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, the one school that is using the coalition's recommended system, 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 Sen. John Cronin of Lunenburg (SD 2312) and Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford (HD 3617).

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% 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."

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