A federal discrimination lawsuit has been filed by the Lawyers for Civil Rights and the Center of Law and Education that challenges the Commonwealth of Massachusetts' admissions policy regulations for career vocational technical education schools.

The legal advocacy groups argue that the regulations allow vocational schools to use admissions criteria that unjustifiably exclude students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities.

The lawsuit is being filed on behalf of four students and the Vocational Education Justice Coalition.

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The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to intercede and suspend any further federal funding disbursements to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education until the state prohibits vocational technical educational schools from using discriminatory admissions criteria, and instead creates a more equitable admission process for all students across the board.

In a press release, the Vocational Education Justice Coalition cites statistics to support its argument that voc-tech school admissions policies are discriminatory.

"In 96% of schools, less privileged students (Students of Color/SOC, English Language Learners/ELL, Student with Disabilities/SWD, Low Income/LI student) had a lower percentage of applicant students offered a seat than their more privileged peers in at least three comparison groups; in 87% of schools, less privileged students had a lower percentage of applicant students offered a seat than their more privileged peers in all four comparison groups, an increase of 33 percentage points from the prior year."

The coalition argues that a lottery admissions system is the only way to ensure students from the voc-tech schools' sending districts have a fair and equitable opportunity to access the education voc-tech schools have to offer.

According to the coalition, 27 of 28 voc-tech school districts have declined to adopt pure lottery admission policies.

During a press conference at the Massachusetts State House on Thursday, the coalition recognized three elected officials: New Bedford Rep. Tony Cabral, Lunenberg Sen. John Cronin and New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell for their work on this effort.

They also called on Gov. Maura Healey to get the state education board admissions policy to a lottery system.

Sen. Cronin and Rep. Cabral recently filed bills to change the vocational system to a lottery and regularly collect data on the demographics of the student bodies admitted.

Cabral said at the press conference that legislation was a necessary step because the state hasn't gone far enough to make the admission process equitable.

Mitchell successfully led a statewide effort with mayors across the Commonwealth to lobby the state to issue new regulations for vocational schools.

While Mitchell and the coalition of mayors lobbied for a pure lottery admissions policy, the state issued regulations requiring that schools eliminate admissions criteria that disproportionately affect students of protected classes, but schools can also opt for a lottery system.

Mitchell and the administration at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School have been at odds over the latter's "selective screening" admissions policy, which Mitchell has argued is discriminatory against students of protected classes such as immigrants and students with special needs.

Mitchell has also said that DESE has "buried their head in the sand" when it comes to cracking down on voc-tech admissions policies.

GNB Voc-Tech has twice changed its admissions policy in light of DESE's new regulations.

In a Dec. 13 school committee meeting, the school implemented a hybrid admissions policy wherein 285 students will be placed into a "qualified lottery" if they meet particular grade, attendance, and behavioral standards. The next 285 students will be admitted through selective criteria.

Mitchell said in a recent appearance on WBSM's SouthCoast Tonight that the hybrid admissions approach will do little to solve the problem.

"To me, it's just plain to see what they are up to," Mitchell said. "They are clinging to a status quo, and they are clinging to the status quo so that they can get better performing students in school."

Mitchell argued that many middle school students in New Bedford have poor attendance records or grades because of familial or economic difficulties and that these difficulties are being held against them in this admissions process.

"You can't be so bright-lined about these things." He said. "And the result of their being bright-lined about it is that they've left literally thousands of kids out for no legitimate educational purpose."

The admissions policy debate previously heated up after the New Bedford City Council rejected Carol Pimentel, Mitchell's nominee to the  Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School District School Committee, over her position on changing the school's admissions policy to a lottery. Mitchell has committed to sending Pimentel back to the council for a full vote.

As for the broader issue with admissions policies the way they are, Mitchell said: "Ask any civil rights lawyer in America they'll say 'Yeah, that's a problem. That's a lawsuit waiting to happen,'" he said. "Frankly, lawsuit or no lawsuit, it's unfair, and the state's been unwilling to do anything about it."

Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School could not be reached for comment.

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