Massachusetts vocational schools and technical programs are systematically denying admission to students of color, those from low-income families, and other at-risk populations, closing off career pathways to some of the very people they were designed to help, two legal aid organizations said in a lawsuit filed against the state Thursday.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Boston by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center of Law and Education, argues the state’s use of “exclusionary criteria,” which includes using grades, attendance, and disciplinary records to determine admission, is discriminatory. The result, they argued, is that students, of color, from low-income homes, those with disabilities, and those still learning English are admitted to career vocational schools and programs at disproportionately lower rates than their peers.
The practice, they added, continues even though in 2021 the state eliminated a requirement that vocational programs weigh applicants’ academic records. Despite the rule change, 27 of the state’s 28 regional vocational programs still use criteria-based point systems to cherry pick top-ranked applicants, the complaint said.
Admitting just the top students is “antithetical” to the purpose of vocational education, said Andrea Sheppherd Lomba of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition, which is made up of 20 community, civil rights, and union groups and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees the vocational-ed system in Massachusetts, declined to comment, saying only that it is reviewing the complaint.
Advocates say there’s an easy solution: Students should be admitted by a random-draw lottery.
Senator John Cronin and Representative Antonio Cabral have filed legislation to ingrain such a system in state law.
“This is not a quagmire. This is not an intractable problem. This is not something we need to spend millions and millions of dollars to fix,” Cronin said. “We know the remedy.”
Created as an alternative for students who do not want to pursue a traditional academic path, vocational programs historically have served as a springboard for occupations and skilled trades that do not require a college education. For many low-income students, the programs are a pathway to the middle class.
Massachusetts currently cannot accommodate all the students who want to attend vocational programs, resulting in thousands being denied admission. For school year 2020-21, more than 18,000 rising ninth-graders applied for fewer than 11,000 available seats, according to the complaint.
In 2020, a Globe review found that white students and those from wealthier families received an outsized share of the seats in the state’s vocational programs.
Under pressure from civil rights groups, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2021 voted to change admissions policies, no longer requiring schools to consider students’ academic and behavioral records in their selection process. At the time, advocates worried the language change wasn’t strong enough, that it didn’t preclude admissions officials from considering a student’s past.
State data appear to affirm their fears. Among applicants for the 2022-23 school year, 54 percent of low-income students received admissions offers, compared to 72 percent of peers from higher-income families.
Students with the passion and talent for a trade should have a “fair shot” at getting into vocational schools, Mirian Albert, staff attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Thursday.
“All students are different and they have different skills and abilities. Public school education should celebrate those differences and uplift these students,” Albert said.
The complaint represents four students from Chelsea and Gardner who were either denied admission to vocational schools in their areas or chose not to apply for fear of an unfair process. Though first names are included, the students’ full identities are not disclosed in the filing.
The complaint asks the federal government to withhold funding for the vocational programs until the state Education Department prohibits criteria-based admissions. In 2020-21, the department received nearly $13 million in federal career and technical grants, the complaint said.
Additionally, the advocacy coalition, formed in 2019, is asking Governor Maura Healey to wield her influence over the education board by pushing its members to adopt a lottery system.
Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough is the only regional vocational school that now uses a lottery system. However, barriers remain, the complaint said. Students there must obtain a recommendation and participate in an interview to be placed in the lottery.
“It’s important for students to choose the path that is best for them,” Cabral said. “Some want to be a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician, and that’s their choice.”
One teenager who was not admitted to a vocational school spoke at the news conference Thursday, recounting his disappointment at not getting into Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School.
Now a junior at Chelsea High School, Josue Castellon said he believed the vocational school could offer him hands-on learning opportunities not available at a traditional high school. Though a school counselor discouraged him from applying, saying there was little chance he’d be accepted, he chose to do so anyway, he said.
When he received his rejection letter, Castellon, now 16, said he felt “embarrassed and defeated.”
“So I rushed to hide the letter away so no one could see it,” said Castellon, who is not a party to the lawsuit.
“Why is it that our futures are decided on middle school grades, discipline records, attendance, and recommendations from people that may not even know us, instead of judging us purely on our show of potential and hard work and determination?” he asked.