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Fighting for fairness in vocational tech school admissions

The state’s education board should consider requiring a lottery system.

Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton, Mass.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

As the state prepares for a post-pandemic economy, it will be critically important to have a well prepared workforce ready to rebuild and reengage. It’s a moment of opportunity — or can be — for students with the right training.

And that makes fair admissions to the state’s highly competitive vocational technical schools that much more important. For students who don’t plan to go to college, these public high schools can hold the key to good paying jobs and bright futures in fields from masonry to nursing.

But a coalition of civil rights groups, community leaders, and elected officials insists those admissions processes are discriminatory, leaving little room for students who could benefit the most from their programs. A study released just last month by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides ample evidence of what it called “opportunity gaps.”


Those “gaps” cry out to be filled through an admissions system that can provide fairer outcomes and ultimately through an expansion of programs most in demand.

The numbers don’t lie.

The first ever study of wait lists for the 2020-21 school year (first ever because it was the first time the department had required some 58 vocational schools to submit data on students wait-listed for admission) found on average 1.75 applicants for every seat — although in some communities there indeed were twice as many applicants as places.

However, only 60 percent of students of color who applied were accepted, versus 73 percent of white students who applied. Similarly, some 58 percent of economically disadvantaged students who applied were picked versus 75 percent of those not economically disadvantaged. Some 57 percent of those whose first language isn’t English were selected, compared to 70 percent native English speakers.

The department itself concluded that the disparity in “admission rates indicates an opportunity gap.”


Giving it a name, of course, doesn’t make it go away.

Last week, the Vocational Education Justice Coalition advocated for a lottery system to help right the wrong that even the department is acknowledging.

“We need to mandate a lottery so it’s open to all who can benefit,” said Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP’s New England conference, at the group’s news conference. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we’ve got.”

Currently, schools — and most of them are regional vocational technical schools, reporting to their own regional governing boards — look at grades, attendance, disciplinary history, and recommendations. How much weight each gets is a local decision. Some do in-person interviews.

Some have long waiting lists. And then there are the rare exceptions like Boston’s Madison Park, a perpetual candidate for reinvention, which has cycled through six headmasters since 2012 and is currently without a permanent leader.

But for schools that can afford to be choosy, the coalition charges they too often opt for the academically gifted and the college bound — those least likely to later make use of the vocational skills they were taught.

It was a point made by Tom Fischer, executive director of the North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, who said he worries about the drop-off in vocational school grads “seeking entry into our trade programs, which is now at an all-time low.

“I wonder how many students are not being given the opportunity to pursue well-paid careers in the construction trades due to admission policies which exclude them from this opportunity,” he added.


New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, who was one of 23 mayors to raise the issue of vocational education admissions with the board of education last year, said, “We need something that is more fair, more transparent, more neutral. And that is a lottery. It’s good enough for charter schools.”

That indeed is a fair point. And we are talking about eighth-graders here — some of whom are having their futures determined because of a blot on their middle school disciplinary record or less than perfect English skills.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley surely didn’t order up all that data without a plan for addressing the obvious disparities they point to. He is expected to announce his recommendations at the board’s April meeting — which would set in motion a public comment period and finally a vote of the board.

While vocational education programs have advanced at most schools to match the needs of our changing world, admissions procedures haven’t. It’s time they did, and a lottery seems the most equitable of answers.

But if the demand remains that strong — and there’s every indication it will — the obvious next question is why aren’t student placements allowed to grow as well?

House Speaker Ron Mariano just last Thursday proposed a “skill credentialing system” to “take the guesswork out of the hiring process” for prospective employers. In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mariano said, “Traditional degree programs don’t work for everyone. Skill credentialing has the promise of providing living wages and strong careers for those that choose not to go to a two- or four-year college.”


Teaching those skills is exactly what vocational technical schools have been doing for years and why the best of those programs are in such demand.

As long as seats are limited, fairer admissions policies at public vocational schools are essential. But growing programs that have proven their value is just a smart thing to do.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.