Diversifying Vocational Schools in Massachusetts

Education, Racial Justice

Students, Civil Rights Groups File Federal Discrimination Complaint Challenging Exclusionary Admissions in Vocational Education Schools

State Currently Allows Vocational High Schools to Use Criteria That Disproportionately Exclude Students of Color, English Learners, And Students with Disabilities

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) and the Center for Law and Education (CLE) filed a federal civil rights complaint on behalf of four students and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition (VEJC), detailing how the State allows career vocational technical education (CVTE) schools and programs to use admissions criteria that unjustifiably exclude students of color, English Learners (EL), and students with disabilities. 

Data maintained by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) show that these traditionally marginalized students are consistently admitted to CVTE schools at far lower rates than their counterparts.  The complaint shows how these disparities are the result of CVTE admissions processes that begin to resemble those at selective private schools, where students are “rank ordered” on various exclusionary criteriasuch as grades, attendance, and interviews—and then offered admission based on their point score.  

“Students with the passion and talent for a trade, who have successfully completed 8th grade, should have a fair shot at admission at their regional vocational high school. However, that is not the reality under DESE’s current policies and regulations,” said Mirian Albert, Staff Attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights. “Students who do not benefit from a traditional educational setting can be reengaged through CVTE’s practical and hands-on instruction. CVTE also allows students—particularly from traditionally marginalized communities—to be competitive in the job market, all of which make the need for equitable admissions even more urgent.”

The complaint filed today highlights how each of the exclusionary criteria that DESE allows disproportionately excludes students of color, ELLs, and students with disabilities.  For example, a large and growing body of social science research demonstrates that subjective criteria such as interviews and counselor recommendations create a fertile ground for bias. 

“Any student who successfully completes middle school should have an equal shot at admission to a vocational education program,” said Lewis Finfer of VEJC, the organizational complainant.  “Rank-ordering students based on their grades or attendance, and only admitting the top students, is antithetical to the whole purpose behind vocational education.”

In recent years, VEJC has elevated this issue and sought much-needed admissions reform at CVTE schools. In June 2021, DESE promulgated new regulations requiring that CVTE schools recalibrate their admission policies. However, the regulations made only minimal changes, and DESE continues to grant CVTE schools’ substantial discretion over their admission procedures. The complaint presents data showing that the disparate admission rates that were seen in prior years continue to be seen for the 2023 school year—and indeed appear to be getting worse.  

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to intercede and suspend any further federal funding disbursements to DESE until DESE prohibits CVTE schools from utilizing discriminatory admissions criteria, and instead, creates a more equitable admission process for all students across the board. 

Click here to download the complaint.