BOSTON – As businesses warn of worker shortages and thousands of potential students stranded on waiting lists, lawmakers and lawyers urged the legislature this week to pump billions of dollars into Massachusetts vocational and technical schools and reform their admissions policies.
A steady stream of speakers called during an education committee hearing for radical state action to strengthen the state’s capacity to educate adolescents and adults in high-demand occupations and address the inequalities that prevent some students from accessing life-changing training programs.
An omnibus bill that has received significant support combines $ 3 billion in guarantees to renovate, expand and construct vocational and technical school buildings with a series of policy changes aimed at accelerating public investment in the field.
“There just isn’t enough capacity in our system to meet the demand for vocational technical education from students, parents and employers,” said Steve Sharek, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators. “We don’t have enough regional voc-techs, and the ones we have are often too small and too old. Even some of the newer, more recently renovated ones were not built to meet the capacity of their regions.
Representative Frank Moran, who co-tabled the House version of the bill, said the strengthened capital infrastructure would help achieve more equitable access to vocational education, especially for students of color.
“This funding will go a long way in ensuring that communities like Lawrence and other Gateway Cities are able to provide leading professional learning opportunities for a student who wishes to pursue a career in the trades,” said Moran. , himself a graduate of the Grand Lawrence. Technical school, told colleagues.
In addition to authorizing $ 3 billion in bonds through the Massachusetts School Building Authority for investment in voc technology, the sweeping bill would create a Vocational Technical Education Funding Commission for investigate long-term issues of how to pay for expanded skills-based training programs. in Massachusetts and would establish an office of technical vocational education within the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
It would also allow the long-term rental of buildings so that more schools can offer hands-on training programs and would allow towns and villages to remove vocational school payments from their local tax levy cap, thus easing budget pressure. , according to a summary of the Alliance for Vocational Technical Education bill.
Elected officials continue to point to vocational and technical education as a path to stable, well-paying jobs for Massachusetts students and adults seeking a career change. However, demand far exceeds the space available in state schools, and the cost of increasing capacity is emerging as a major obstacle.
Several speakers have warned that inaction will slow the state’s recovery from the pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused.
Nina Hackel, who owns a kitchen and bathroom remodeling company called Dream Kitchens, told the committee that her business could be set to grow 30-40% from last year, but that she won’t be able to do it because “we don’t have enough artisans. . “
“It is a crying shame,” she said. “The trades are screaming. We need to stop selecting our children to enter business school on criteria that primarily help them in college. We must make our trade schools work on the creation of trades. We really need to make that available to the 8,000, maybe 10,000 kids who would like to come in. “
“Our economy is being ruined because we don’t have enough professional places to meet our needs,” Hackel added.
Education advocates have also lobbied the state to take action to update admissions policies at dozens of vocational and technical schools in Massachusetts, in some cases calling for a more aggressive response than the regulations implemented by the Baker administration.
A bill from Senator John Cronin of Lunenburg would require all vocational schools to select incoming classes using a lottery, replacing the current system in which students can be admitted based on their grades, attendance, discipline, guidance from guidance counselors, and sometimes interviews – all of which create disproportionate barriers for communities of color.
“We currently have a system of vocational schools that selectively enroll more privileged students, thereby contributing to the state’s large and persistent disparities in race, income, language and disability in student achievement and high school drop-out and drop-out rates, ”said Dan French, president of Citizens for Public Schools and member of the Vocational Education Justice Coalition.
A DESE analysis released in February found that Massachusetts had about 1.75 full student applications for vocational education for every available program seat. Students of color, those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, English language learners and students with disabilities “received fewer offers of admission” compared to their peers, according to the analysis.
Last month, the State Council for Primary and Secondary Education approved new regulations for the 2022-2023 school year, removing the requirement that grades, attendance, disciplinary records and recommendations of counselors should be used as technical and professional admission criteria.
The regulations authorized Commissioner Jeff Riley to intervene in the event of non-compliance. Riley said he plans to “be very energetic” and may choose to require schools to use a lottery system.
Speaking in favor of the Cronin bill, French said he believes lawmakers should go even further and impose a raffle of students to be admitted when nominations exceed available seats.
“The regulations give vocational schools the responsibility for interpreting this standard and still allow them to include grades, discipline, attendance, recommendations and interviews with certain restrictions,” he said.