For 50 Years, This Voluntary Busing Program Has Desegregated Schools 1 Family — and 1 District — at a Time

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Just after 5:00 every weekday morning, while most of his schoolmates are sleeping, Collin Dillon joins his mother, Monique, at the kitchen table for a hot breakfast. An honor student with a gentle yet sunny disposition, Collin loves manga and drawing, and he hopes to work as a filmmaker someday. His parents are immensely proud of his achievements and ambitions.

The Dillons live in a three-story, early 20th century home in the historic, largely working-class, predominantly black neighborhood of Dorchester in south Boston. His father owns an auto repair shop, and his mother is a grant specialist; both grew up in the neighborhood. The nearest public school is just a few blocks away. But every morning, the Dillons put Collin on a bus that takes him 90 minutes or more out of the city to a public elementary school in the coastal community of Marblehead.

Collin participates in Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity — METCO — the nation’s longest continuously running voluntary school desegregation program. METCO, which just celebrated its 50th year, is implemented in 37 school districts around Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, and is one of only a handful of such programs nationwide, including one in Hartford, Connecticut, and another in Rhode Island.

Urban families must sign up their children to participate, and suburban communities must opt in.

Districts that choose to accept METCO students — they decide how many to take — include them in their enrollment figures, which count toward state funding. This school year, they also received an additional $4,065 per METCO student from the state, plus a state transportation grant that varies widely by district — from less than half to over two-thirds of that per-student allocation.

METCO has produced some real, measurable successes. But its impact is limited in scope, and participating families face significant burdens, such as rising very early each morning and sacrificing some connection to their local community. At a time when voices across the political spectrum are engaged in passionate debate about how to remedy inequity in America’s schools, METCO is a study in the complex challenges of meeting those goals.

Collin’s daily 22-mile journey up the Massachusetts coastline in search of a better education yields insight into the initiatives and programs intended to remedy the inequality in education that has become one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.

Bridging a racial and economic divide

Racial segregation in housing and education has long been an aspect of life in Boston. Even today, Boston ranks in the top 20th percentile of most-segregated cities in the U.S. The racial divisions correspond closely to economic ones, and the resulting inequality is perhaps nowhere as stark as in the area’s public school systems. While schools in affluent suburbs such as Wellesley and Dover are considered some of the best in the country, those in neighborhoods with large concentrations of people of color, such as Mattapan and Dorchester, rank lower by most measures.

In 1974, in response to the Massachusetts legislature’s 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, Boston was put under a court order to desegregate its schools through busing. Soon, the city was roiled by riots and protests. Buses transporting black children from Dorchester and Roxbury to South Boston were beset by mobs shouting racial epithets and throwing rocks, bottles, and golf balls. White parents who balked at busing their own children rallied around the slogan, “Hell no, we won’t go!”

Boston’s busing program lasted 14 years, prompting thousands of white families to move to the suburbs. Meanwhile, all this time, the METCO program had been operating with little fanfare or controversy.

METCO was founded in 1966, the year Martin Luther King was pelted with stones in Chicago while delivering a speech about nonviolent protest. Against a national backdrop of racial conflict, a group of African-American parents came together to seek a remedy for inequality in Boston’s predominantly black public schools. METCO was the fruit of their work, founded in collaboration with city authorities. At the program’s start, only seven suburban communities signed on — a number that has grown to more than three dozen.

The Dillons are second-generation participants. Monique’s mother, who also grew up in Dorchester, has vivid memories of her own childhood in Boston’s public schools, where African-American students were singled out for discrimination, violence, and “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” she says. She signed her children up for METCO in the early 1970s, and every morning, Monique and her sister boarded a bus to Concord — which still has one of the top-ranking school systems in the country.

“Getting up every morning to get on that bus taught me discipline and a respect for the education I was receiving,” says Monique. “I am still in touch with all my friends from those years.”

Tianna King, a Boston resident who sends her children to public schools in Dover through METCO, also believes the sacrifices are well worth it.

“A third-grader in Dover is more educated than a kid attending the Boston Public Schools,” King says. “Field trips and out-of-school activities are more educational and more fun. I want my kids to have that experience: learning in a safe environment and preparing for the world of work.”

Across city limits into another world

As Collin boards the bus at 6:12 a.m., several dozen children are already chatting happily in their seats. This year, Marblehead accepted 81 METCO students. According to 2016–17 enrollment statistics, the town’s public schools are 86 percent white. Participation in METCO is race-blind, but, like Collin and his friends on the bus, the overwhelming majority of METCO students are children of color. For the school year ending in June 2017, 34 percent of METCO students qualified as economically disadvantaged under Massachusetts state law, while just 8 percent of students in receiving districts fell into that category.

Collin chats gamely with his friends as the bus makes a half-dozen stops in different Boston neighborhoods. But by the time the driver steers the vehicle out of the city, Collin’s eyes are drooping. Before long, he is fast asleep. When the bus pulls up in front of the Village School, a two-story, brick K-6 elementary school with a bright interior several minutes from the town’s historic center, he jolts awake and calmly disembarks with the other kids.

“Did you do the math homework?” he asks a fellow fifth-grader who is stepping out of his mother’s Prius. Comparing notes, the two boys enter the school together.

There is little doubt the METCO program benefits participants. Studies indicate that they consistently graduate from high school at far greater rates than students in their home communities in Boston and Springfield — even those across the state. They outperform Boston Public School students on standardized tests: METCO students achieved proficient or advanced marks on the state’s standardized English Language Arts test at a rate of over 95 percent, compared with 82 percent for Boston students as a whole, and bested their peers by a similar margin in math.

According to METCO surveys, over 90 percent of program graduates go on to attend two- or four-year colleges, and nearly 50 percent of the four-year college graduates obtain advanced degrees.  High-profile METCO alumni include Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

The benefits of programs such as METCO go well beyond raised test scores, and they accrue not just to the students in the program but to their host communities as well. METCO helps teach public school students about civic engagement and, above all, how to get along with others, including children from different backgrounds.

“While Marblehead is attracting more international families, it is still overwhelmingly white, and METCO reduces that racial isolation,” says Amanda Murphy, principal of the Village School. “METCO students bring their own talents and perspectives to the school, contributing to a richer educational environment for the kids living in our community.”

“We want Collin to learn how to get along with people of diverse backgrounds, including white people,” says Monique. “That’s what it’s going to be like for him in the working world. We want him to feel at ease.”

Still, METCO has limitations, the most obvious being size. Because schools must opt in, the program is necessarily constrained: At present, approximately 3,500 students — out of a student population of 56,000 in Boston and another 26,000 in Springfield — participate. The costs and logistics of busing students from one community to another, far away, present another challenge.

But long commutes are just the start. METCO requires extraordinary commitment from students and their families. Urban kids coming into a suburban district may have to work hard to ramp up to more advanced curricula. Assimilating into a community that looks very different than their own neighborhoods, which are majority black and Latino, can be challenging. It’s not always easy to bring down the barriers.

Then there’s the challenge of parent or guardian involvement. Teacher conferences, for instance, are burdensome for parents who work in Boston and have to replicate their children’s commute in the middle of the day.  Earlier mornings mean earlier bedtimes for everyone, and parents may miss out on opportunities for social and leisure activities in the evenings.

“I think these school integration programs are some of the most powerful interventions for low-income and minority students that are available,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic school integration. Commenting on the long bus rides that participation requires, Kahlenberg furrows his brow. “Those are valid concerns if everything was equal,” he says. “But everything is not equal. This is not a postracial society. If people really wanted to,” he adds, “they could change housing policies and integrate communities so kids wouldn’t have to be bused across town.”

A problem of scale

Among education specialists and equity activists, interest in METCO has grown as mandatory desegregation programs across the country have run into obstacles. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Milliken v. Bradley that suburbs cannot be required to participate in cities’ desegregation plans. According to Susan Eaton, director of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University, who interviewed hundreds of METCO participants and graduates for her book The Other Boston Busing Story: What's Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line, “Milliken cemented in place the now-familiar pattern of predominantly minority, poor central city schools surrounded by white suburbs.”

Then, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 that public school systems cannot promote integration through measures that take account of students’ racial identity — changing the legal landscape for initiatives like METCO.

“METCO is now a race-blind program, meaning that if the district asks if a student can participate in METCO because they are white, the answer is yes,” says Cliff Chuang, senior associate commissioner for educational options for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “But even though the legal framework has shifted, the purpose of the program has remained the same in terms of increasing diversity and reducing racial isolation in public schools.”

Even so, expanding METCO’s model — even in Boston — poses significant challenges.

First, there are problems of scale and impact. It’s up to the host districts to make space available, and there is little indication that they have an appetite for more. The demand for METCO spaces, not surprisingly, far exceeds the supply. According to Jean McGuire, who stepped aside as METCO’s director this past year, at age 86, there are more than 10,000 children on waiting lists. Getting in requires planning far, far ahead: A quarter of METCO parents, says McGuire, signed up for the program before their children were a year old.

Second, notes Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, programs like METCO are limited by geography.

“Most African-American children in this country, and especially those in big urban areas, are too geographically isolated from white middle-class areas for these types of programs to have a very big effect,” he says. “Which is not to say that they are not effective for the children they touch. But there is no substitute for desegregating urban areas.”

A third, more uncomfortable, problem is that METCO may have a negative effect on the neighborhoods its children leave behind.

“The programs remove the most highly motivated kids and the most motivated parents from their home communities,” Rothstein says, “further concentrating the disadvantage of those public schools and leaving them with a more difficult task.”

McGuire dismisses this concern. “Education-minded parents in Boston’s poorer neighborhoods have numerous options to choose from,” she says, “including a number of charter schools, magnets, public, and parochial schools. Taking away people’s options is not a way to help them.”

In fact, as the education landscape has changed, introducing a variety of reform initiatives, some charter school advocates question how relevant METCO continues to be.

“It was a terrific idea when it was started,” says Massachusetts State Rep. Cory Atkins, “and it’s still not a bad idea. But what’s happened in the interim is, ed reform was passed in 1993. Since then, we have pumped billions of dollars into Boston schools. We’re also opening the number of charter schools in the city simultaneously, so parents in the city can have more choices than to send their kids to the suburbs. The Boston schools are getting much better and the charter schools are getting much better.”

There are also financial strains that participation in METCO inflicts on host districts. Though METCO was designed to be cost-neutral, the additional expenses associated with educating METCO students far exceed the $4,065 per student allocated by the state; barring local grants, gifts, or other funding sources, host districts have been making up the difference out of their own taxpayer funds. For example, an independent 2016 study of Lexington Public Schools, which accepts approximately 250 METCO students, concluded that the program cost local taxpayers $4.2 million for operating expenses.

The school districts that receive METCO students tend to be in wealthier districts where state aid makes up a relatively small part of per-pupil spending,” says Chuang. “So even though METCO students are counted in the receiving districts’ enrollment, the districts are generally not receiving the full cost of educating those students from the state, even with the approximately $4,000 per-pupil grant and the transportation grant added on.”

Chuang notes that the state line item that supports METCO, totaling about $20 million per year, has remained relatively unchanged for much of the past decade while serving about the same number of students. “This means that over time the state funding covers less and less of a cost of educating those students. The amount of funding has held steady over the past decade, but costs of educating those students have increased,” he says.

In addition, though the program was set up under the concept that seats would be offered on a space-available basis, with the passage of decades it has become clear that in many communities, METCO students are not merely filling empty seats. The number of METCO students is often simply added to district enrollment figures and projections, which in some towns feeds a burgeoning student population that they then need space to accommodate.

In Lexington, the 2016 study estimated that participation in METCO cost taxpayers $1.4 million in capital expenses.

The town of Brookline, which currently accepts more than 300 METCO students, is exploring the creation of an additional elementary school to accommodate a sharp spike in student enrollment over the past decade, at a preliminary projected cost of over $100 million. Although METCO receives widespread local support and most town officials express a commitment for continued participation, some local voices raise concerns.

A 2014 report focusing on school population by economist Lee Selwyn, a member of a subcommittee of a budget override study, pointed out that the School Committee budgeted “for nonresident students before assessing the space available in the district” and alleged that “the decision of the School Department not to adhere to and enforce its own ‘space available policy’ ” had “contributed directly and inextricably to the nearly 1,100-student jump” in enrollment since 2006.

“If practices do not change,” the report continued, “Brookline will in essence be building its new classrooms to serve nonresident students and will, contrary to its explicit policies, be staffing its schools at levels needed to serve nonresident and resident, rather than only resident, students.”

A 2011 Pioneer Institute white paper titled METCO Merits More: The History and Status of METCO, written in collaboration with the Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, recommended that Massachusetts and education leaders offer more incentives for suburban districts to sign on. “The state should find new ways to support school districts participating in METCO program, possibly by tying building reimbursements to participation and offering competitive grants for teacher training or innovative programs,” the paper said.

Still, any expansion of the program, or even organized opposition to the program as it currently exists, could make the expense noticeable and difficult to sustain. It might also start to invite legal challenges and attacks from conservative groups that, as Eaton points out, oppose affirmative action and other race-based equal-opportunity policies. “Under such challenges, often backed by prosperous conservative groups, plaintiffs argue that race-conscious programs are discriminatory,” she says.

A larger question

When people argue about charters or discuss programs like METCO, they are really arguing about the purpose of schools in the first place. According to David Deming, a professor of public policy, education, and economics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the discussion about integration is “oftentimes an unspoken debate about schooling.”

“If you think the primary purpose is to instruct children in academic topics such as reading and math and science, you are much more willing to tolerate segregation, so long as the schools are actually really good,” he says. “But if you think schools are not just about instruction, but that they are also social institutions and democratic institutions, and that they ought to teach children how to engage civically and understand people who are different from themselves, you want kids to mix with people who are not like themselves.”

School choice is not the same thing as excellence in schooling. Though some of Boston’s public charters have good track records, the data remain inconsistent. According to Rothstein, widely touted ed reform solutions to racial inequality are no substitute for desegregating urban neighborhoods.

“Tinkering around the edges of that with busing, or school choice programs, or magnet schools, or reading specialists in public schools, or any of the other things we talk about, can only make a marginal difference,” he says. “They don’t address the underlying problem.”

The long road home

By 4:30 p.m., as the sun is lowering in the sky, the METCO bus threads its way along the smaller roads that line the ocean and heads back toward the city. The ride is too bumpy for reading or homework, but the atmosphere is lively and happy. Still, an air of fatigue hangs gently over the children’s conversation.

The bus passes through the old fishing communities of Swampscott and Lynn. Collin looks out the window at the moving landscape of boat-filled inlets with gulls flying overhead.

“I like looking at the houses out here,” says Collin, pointing out his favorite, a solidly built colonial structure.

Collin says he loves boating. Sometimes he gets out on the water with his dad.

“One time there was a storm; these roads were flooded, and a huge wave crashed near the bus,” Collin says. “Some kids were scared — but the bus driver wasn’t worried, so I wasn’t too worried either.” Collin smiles.

As he looks out at the boats in the harbor and the ocean beyond, his eyelids start to droop, and soon he’s napping again, his head resting against the window.

It’s a strange thing, this journey across an old and sprawling metropolis in search of a decent education. For Collin, it may be the best of existing alternatives, but as he naps on the bus, it is clear that that it comes at a price.

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