Opinion

Opinion | Cheryl Brown Henderson and Jim Stergios

State should expand Metco

Boston, MA - 9/7/1966: Joan McLarin, of Hutchings Street, says a last minute goodbye to her eighth grade son, Milton, 13, as his bus leaves from Seaver and Harold Streets for Braintree Jr. High School on Sept. 7, 1966, the first day of the voluntary busing program sponsored by Metco (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity), an independent organization funded by the state that transports minority children from racially imbalanced schools in Boston to suburban schools. (Dan Sheehan/Globe Staff) --- BGPA Reference: 140617_MJ_032

Boston Globe File Photo

In 1966, Joan McLarin says goodbye to her eighth-grade son, Milton, 13, as his bus leaves from Seaver and Harold streets in Boston for Braintree Junior High School as part of the Metco program.

The 50th anniversary of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (Metco), which allows about 3,300 Boston and Springfield students to attend school in surrounding districts, provides a good opportunity to take stock of the program and, in doing so, compare it with the intent of the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In its opinion, the court wrote that education is the “most important function of state and local governments. . . . It is doubtful that any child can be reasonably expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity . . . is a right that must be made available to all on equal terms.” Metco exemplifies the court’s pronouncement.

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While Metco can be improved, its performance merits expansion. More than three-quarters of students in the program are African-American or Latino, about half are low-income, and a quarter have special needs.

That said, Metco participants have a 94 percent graduation rate, higher than the 87 percent statewide rate, and far better than Boston’s 64 percent or Springfield’s 52 percent graduation rate. Metco students cut the achievement gap in half on both third-grade reading and sixth-grade math tests.

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About 90 percent of Metco students go on to post-secondary education. Once again, this is above the statewide average and far higher than the corresponding rates for Boston and Springfield. A waiting list of about 10,000 students translates into a two- to five-year wait to get into the program, allowing the program to place no more than 350-400 new students each year.

Despite its success, per-pupil state funding for Metco declined by 18 percent between 2007 and 2014, even as funding for the school districts Metco students attend rose by a third. It’s a good thing districts saw an increase, since state money covers only a fraction of the costs they incur to educate the program’s students.

Instead of seeing its support reduced, Metco deserves to be expanded. Even if funding increased and more cities were added to the program, it would still account for a tiny fraction of state education funding, and that incremental investment would have a positive impact on thousands of students.

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Keeping in mind the court’s words in Brown, that education is the “most important function of state and local governments,” Metco should be included under the state education funding formula known as Chapter 70, which automatically adjusts for inflation. Funding this program through a separate state budget line item, and thereby forcing it to fight off potential cuts every year, puts the program at an inherent disadvantage.

Along with more support, the Commonwealth should do a better job of monitoring Metco, measuring outcomes, and making the data public. There should be better tracking of college enrollment and completion. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should, for example, compare the performance of Metco students with those who remain on the waiting list.

Finally, there needs to be better record-keeping when it comes to the demographics of both Metco students and those on the waiting list. More detailed information is needed on the size of the waiting list and more transparency about the process used to select participating students. These changes would improve a program that has already shown itself to be a good investment for Massachusetts taxpayers.

The Brown decision was designed to offer excellence to students of color and those with special needs — not to educate for mediocrity. More than 60 years later, we believe the justices who signed on to the unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education would approve of Metco, which is allowing those less privileged and students of color to exercise their right to equal education.

Cheryl Brown Henderson is president of the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research. Her father, the Rev. Oliver L. Brown, was a lead plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education. Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
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