BOSTON — New state regulations around vocational school admission policies are teed up for a Tuesday vote, and advocates are calling for changes before then to address what they see as shortcomings around access and equity.
Ahead of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote on the regulations, the Vocational Education Justice Coalition has been meeting with board members.
Barbara Fields of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts said Thursday during a virtual press conference that the coalition is trying “to appeal to their sense of fairness and justice in their decision making,” and calling on them “to remove the discriminatory barriers that have a disparate impact on students of color and other marginalized groups.”
The proposed regulations, initially presented to the board in April and then updated after a public comment period, were developed after discussions and data analysis “made clear that applying a single set of state-prescribed admissions criteria is not in the best interests of students, families and vocational schools and programs,” according to a memo to the board from Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
Among other changes, the proposal would give vocational-technical schools flexibility to set their own admissions policies “that promote equitable access” and would remove the requirement that grades, attendance, discipline record and counselor recommendations be used as admissions criteria.
Riley’s plan also would require each vocational school and program to submit its admissions policy to the state by Oct. 1 — changed from Aug. 15 in the original version and would bar the use of selective criteria that disproportionately excludes members of protected classes, unless the criteria is “validated as essential to participation,” and alternatives are unavailable.
“Vocational education is driven by many variables, including student interest, labor and market demands, and diverse student populations, both within and across vocational schools,” Riley wrote. “I believe we can best address this complex issue by allowing individual schools and programs to set policies that respond to the needs of their sending communities and are consistent with applicable federal and state laws and regulations to promote equitable access for all students, while retaining the Department’s role to monitor compliance and intervene when necessary.”
The Vocational Education Justice Coalition consists of community, labor and civil rights groups that have been calling for admissions policy changes to open up access for students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged, learning English or have disabilities.
Speakers at Thursday’s press conference said they’re concerned the proposed regulations give schools too much latitude, creating doubts that they will result in policies that do not disproportionately exclude marginalized students.
“We’re frustrated,” said coalition member Peter Enrich, chair of the Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts. “We feel that the department has recognized the problem and has taken some first steps toward addressing it, but hasn’t gone nearly far enough to give any of us confidence that the important policy goals of fair admissions to vocational schools can be achieved. We would like, we very much hope, that the department will make further changes before bringing their regulations to the board next week, and that if they do not, the board will demand those changes or refuse to implement the regs in their present, disappointing form.”
Among other objections, the coalition said it is concerned that the later October deadline for submitting admissions policies for the state reduces the potential for oversight before the next year’s recruitment period and that the proposed regulation “does not prohibit the use of middle-school grades, unexcused absences and a range of suspensions and expulsions,” in admissions policies.
Lew Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network said the coalition has met with 10 of the 11 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members and felt that about a third “were very sympathetic to our view.”
“We’re hoping that based on what we communicated to the board members in the meetings and since that they will ask questions and say that these, as was said, these need to be significantly strengthened, the regulations he’s put forward,” Finfer said. “We’ll see on Tuesday. It’s a board appointed by the governor, but there’s certainly some openness of some people. Whether there’s six of the 11 willing to really push hard for the changes, we’re not sure yet.”