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Mass. needs more voc-tech schools — and a fairer way for students to get into them

A path to good jobs means expanding opportunities for all students.

Hair rollers at the salon at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston on Dec. 15, 2020.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Edward Doe, as he is called in a recently filed civil rights complaint over admission policies at the state’s vocational schools, had a tough time in middle school. He failed some of his courses, had disciplinary problems, and often arrived at school late. But the Greater New Bedford Regional Technical High School had set aside a small number of its highly prized seats to be distributed by lottery.

Edward won the lottery — in every sense of that phrase. Today he’s getting B’s and C’s in class, gets to school on time, and hasn’t had any disciplinary issues. And he’s on his way to a good paying job when he gets out of high school.


He isn’t a party to the complaint filed last week by Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center of Law and Education because he did make it in, but as the filing puts it, “He is concrete proof that the selection criteria being used to screen out students are simply not essential to participation.”

The actual parties in the complaint filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights are two students from Gardner and two from Chelsea — two who received rejection notices and two who never applied fearing that their middle school records or lack of English language skills would eliminate them from contention. They represent thousands of students who would choose the career path the vocational schools represent if only they could.

There is a good deal of political rhetoric these days around building more housing, fixing the MBTA, and dealing with crumbling infrastructure — but not nearly enough effort is being exerted on producing the workers who can get that done.

The state’s more than two dozen voc-tech schools have too few available slots to accommodate the thousands of students demanding their programs, allowing those schools to cherry-pick their students using a host of criteria — fairly or not, relevant or not.


For the 2020-2021 school year, 18,500 rising ninth graders applied for 10,616 available slots in the state’s career/vocational technical education schools, according to the complaint.

“As the popularity and demand for CVTE continued to grow in Massachusetts, however, so did an alarming trend — students of color, [English language learners], and students with disabilities, along with students from economically disadvantaged families, have been increasingly excluded from admission,” it noted.

And despite new regulations approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2021 intended to “promote equitable access,” the admission figures for the current school year were disappointing. Some 55 percent of students of color who applied were admitted in the 2022-2023 school year, compared to 69 percent of white students, and 54 percent of students from economically disadvantaged families got admission offers compared to 72 percent from higher-income families.

In fact, since the DESE’s supposed reforms, “almost all schools adopted policies under the new regulations that had the same flaws,” as the old system, the complaint charged. Of the 28 regional vocational schools in question only one went to a lottery system — Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School in Marlborough, which did make gains in admissions of students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities.

Two Massachusetts lawmakers are proposing legislation that would mandate a lottery admissions system rather like that used for charter schools.


But Governor Maura Healey’s new administration, whose secretary of education will sit on the DESE board, could simply mandate a lottery system via regulation.

Ultimately the vocational education system needs to be expanded, and that expansion would certainly be a good use of the extra dollars available from the proceeds of the new millionaires tax.

But a brick-and-mortar expansion will take time and money. Northeast Metro Tech in Wakefield serves 12 communities, including Chelsea, Revere, and Malden. It admits about 330 ninth graders each year but can get more than 800 applications for those slots. It has applied for funding for a new building (at an estimated cost to sending-town taxpayers of $176 million) that would allow it to expand. But, even assuming all goes well with funding and construction, it’s not likely to open until 2026.

That’s not long in “government years,” but it’s a lifetime for a young person searching for the right kind of education and the skill set that will mean a good job and a sound future. In the meantime, the least the state’s vocational education system can provide is fairness — and that falls right back on state education officials doing the right thing and mandating an open lottery admissions system.

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