CPS Testimony on Vocational Education Admissions

October 16, 2020

Testimony to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Commissioner Jeff Riley Regarding Vocational School Admissions

Citizens for Public Schools (CPS) strongly recommends that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and you as commissioner make significant changes to the state regulations and policies governing vocational school admissions to ensure equitable access to these schools. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) current admissions policy guidelines for accepting students into the state’s vocational schools are inequitable and deprive a disproportionate percentage of low-income, Black, Latinx, English Learners and students with disabilities from enrollment. CPS has also signed onto the testimony submitted by the Vocational Education Justice Coalition. Our recommendations are similar to those of the coalition, yet we have important differences in attendance and guidance counselor recommendations.

Our country is reckoning with centuries of institutional policies that are inherently racist. DESE’s vocational school admissions policy is one of these policies. Rather than rely on cajoling individual vocational schools to change their policies themselves, which will only result in incremental changes with negligible impact, DESE’s admission policy needs to change immediately.

A solution must include both increasing the number of seats in vocational high schools AND major reforms in the Admissions Policy so that students of color, immigrants, low income, and special needs students are admitted in much greater numbers.

The existing system of ranking and admitting students based on grades, discipline, attendance, counselor recommendations, and a possible interview is not equitable. No other regular public schools use such a selective admissions system. Selective admissions policies guarantee that large numbers of the state’s historically underserved students will be denied equal access to these educational opportunities. Currently, the significant majority of regional vocational high schools are significantly less diverse by race, income, English learners, and students with special needs than the largest sending high school in their region. By their founding principles, vocational schools should be serving at minimum their fair share of Black, Latinx, English Learner, low-income, and disabled students. 

Many middle- and upper-income students, disproportionately white, are now choosing to enroll in vocational schools with the intent of using this education as a stepping stone to college enrollment, while restrictive admissions policies deny entry of many Black, Latinx, English Learner, low-income, and special education students due to their not meeting one or more of these requirements. This dynamic results in fewer opportunities for those students who would most benefit from vocational education, and fewer vocational school graduates who enter the labor market.

Eliminating the achievement gap is a top priority of the Student Opportunity Act. That should be the case for our state’s vocational schools. The rank-ordering and admission of students based on discriminatory performance criteria should be eliminated, and admissions policies should be limited to setting “gateway” qualifications necessary for successful participation in vocational-technical programs and schools. All eligible students should have an equal chance of being selected. Specifically, we recommend the following changes to state regulations and policies:

  1. Academics.  Successful graduation from eighth grade should be the only academic “gateway” requirement for entry into the applicant pool.
  • Discipline/Conduct Record. Violations of bringing a weapon to school and assaulting a teacher or administrator should be the only conditions limiting entry into the pool. Moreover, students applying with such records should have the right to a meeting to explain the circumstances of what happened and the steps they have taken since such incident(s), permitting possible entry into the applicant pool after all factors are considered. 
  • Attendance Record. Attendance should not be an admissions factor. Students who are disengaged in middle schools may have a record of chronic absenteeism; these very same students may demonstrate excellent attendance if given a chance to attend a vocational school which engages them in learning.
  • Guidance Counselor RecommendationsThis policy should be eliminated as it is highly prone to race, income, language, and special education bias by guidance counselors who are predominantly white.
  • Interviews. Interviews should only be considered if requested by a student who does not qualify for entry into the applicant pool based on the above gateway qualifications. Through the interview process, the school should work with applicant students to determine whether the student would be able to successfully participate in the program.

It should be noted that any gateway criteria, such as those suggested above, must be assessed for systemic bias. Any criteria with a disproportionate impact on any applicant group must, consistent with civil rights law, eliminate that criteria or validate the criteria as essential to participation in a given program. In the latter case, it must be demonstrated that any alternative equally valid criteria that do not have such a disproportionate adverse effect are unavailable.

From the applicant pool that emerges from these criteria, a lottery should be held to select students for admission into vocational schools. All qualifying applicants should have an equal chance of selection.

We urge you and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to take swift action on these recommended policy changes to create greater equity in vocational school enrollment.


Lisa Guisbond, Executive Director                              Dan French, President, Board of Directors                

On behalf of Citizens for Public Schools