BOSTON — Vocational schools would be allowed to set their own admissions policies under proposed state regulations, but advocates say the changes won't end what they say is a "discriminatory" system for deciding who gets seats in the schools.

On Tuesday, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley is expected to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to adopt proposed rules that will guide admissions policies at the state's 37 public vocational and technical schools.

Riley said the plan will require schools to create admissions policies "that promote equitable access, comply with state and federal laws and regulations, and receive annual approval from the district’s school committee or board of trustees."

Currently, applicants are ranked on their academic, attendance and disciplinary records. Riley's plan would eliminate the criteria and prohibit schools from factoring a student's attendance record or "minor" behavior or disciplinary problems.

"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," Riley wrote in a memo to board members ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

Advocates say the selective admission policies used by vocational schools is cherry-picking higher-performing students while weeding out minorities and low-income students.

Many of the students who graduate the schools end up going to college instead of entering the construction trades or service industries, advocates say, which defeats the purpose of a vocational education.

For years, advocates have called on state education leaders to mandate that vocational schools use lotteries, like other public schools, to fill limited classroom openings.

But Riley has rejected those demands, saying he believes that "applying a single set of state-prescribed admissions criteria is not in the best interests of students, families, and vocational schools and programs."

Dan French, a member of the advocacy group Vocational Education Justice Coalition, said Riley's recommendations "do not go far enough."

"They provide too much latitude, allowing each vocational school and program to submit their own admissions criteria for review," French said.

In November, Riley singled out six vocational schools that had "enrollment discrepancies" between their student demographics and those of the traditional high schools in their communities. He sent letters to the schools asking them to voluntarily make changes to admissions policies "that may be impacting equitable student access."

Municipal leaders, including Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday and Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini, wrote to Reilly last year and called on him to scrap the current admissions policies.

Nearly 23,000 Massachusetts high school students are enrolled in career and technical education programs. An estimated 4,000 students are on waiting lists to get into the schools, according to the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education.

The state education board is expected to vote on the proposed admissions regulations in June, following a public comment period.

Tuesday's board meeting, which begins at 1 p.m., will be live-streamed:

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at


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