In Massachusetts, we tend to think of school segregation as something that happened 50 years ago in Boston — if we think of it at all.
But racial segregation is still a serious problem in this state. And by some measures, it’s getting worse. In the last decade alone, the number of “intensely segregated” nonwhite schools — that is, schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent students of color — has grown by more than one-third, according to research from the Beyond Test Scores Project and the Center for Education and Civil Rights.
And while Boston hosts plenty of these racially isolated schools, they’ve also become fixtures in old industrial cities like Lynn, Lawrence, Chelsea, Brockton, and Springfield.
Decades of research show the costs of segregation are enormous. Academic performance suffers. Adult earnings, too. And students of all races miss out on vital opportunities to prepare for life in an increasingly multicultural society.
But responsibility for desegregation does not lie with urban school systems alone. Indeed, there are limits on what cities like Boston, where only 15 percent of public school students are white, and Lawrence, where just 3 percent are white, can do. There are simply not enough white children to go around in those districts to meaningfully integrate their classrooms. Districts can, of course, strive to create more of the high-achieving schools that would draw white middle-class families and create more diverse classrooms.
But in this moment of racial reckoning, the state must take a leadership role — encouraging both intradistrict and regional, interdistrict integration.
A good place to start is with a series of bills put forth by state Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, who says he learned the virtues of integration as a child in the city’s schools — once among the most diverse districts in the state, but now one of the most racially isolated.
The first measure would establish a commission to study school segregation and the residential segregation that undergirds so much of it — and come up with recommendations for ameliorating both.
Talk of a Beacon Hill commission sometimes gets the eyes rolling; too often, a commission is where a good idea goes to die.
But in a state that hasn’t paid serious attention to segregation in decades, a careful examination of how our affordable housing and school assignment policies have fostered a destructive racial isolation is a crucial first step in building support for meaningful reform.
A similar bill from state Representative Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, would add another worthy task to the commission’s charge: examining successful integration strategies in Massachusetts and nationwide.
We have at least one proven model here. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or Metco program, has been sending students of color from Boston and Springfield to high-achieving suburban schools for decades. And the results — substantially higher graduation and college enrollment rates than peers in urban public schools — have been nothing short of remarkable. But there has been little effort to expand Metco. In fact, just maintaining funding for the program has been a struggle.
There’s plenty to examine beyond the Massachusetts border, too. A recent survey by the Century Foundation found almost 200 school districts and charter schools nationally taking active steps to integrate their schools, alongside hundreds of others subject to a legal desegregation order or voluntary agreement.
Some jurisdictions use magnet schools with themes that attract students from all sorts of backgrounds. Others have redrawn attendance boundaries to encourage integration or have established race-conscious weighted lotteries.
A second bill authored by Crighton would establish a state grant program for districts, or regional consortiums of districts, to develop and implement these sorts of integration strategies. One forward-looking provision would give priority to applicants who pursue the interdistrict or regional approaches that hold the greatest promise.
Crighton says the measure is modeled, in part, after the federal Strength in Diversity Act, which passed the House of Representatives last year with unanimous support from Democrats and, in a rare bit of bipartisanship, votes from 21 Republicans as well.
That legislation has a better chance of making its way through the Senate now that Democrats control the chamber. And whether Congress acts or not, advocates hope the Biden administration will move to revive a separate Obama-era school integration grants program.
The potential for a new federal investment in integration is all the more reason for state lawmakers — and local school boards — to start focusing on the issue now. Massachusetts needs to be ready to seize the opportunity if Washington sets a grant competition in motion.
A third Crighton bill would alter the state program that helps pay for the renovation of aging school buildings and the construction of new ones.
It would double the amount of sales tax revenue set aside for the program, provide more state aid for low-income districts like Lynn, and — here’s where the desegregation piece comes in — add a bonus for projects that promote integration. A regional school that drew from a city and its surrounding suburbs might qualify — or a city school built on the border of white and Latino neighborhoods.
The school construction bill probably won’t pass, as is, in the short term. Its call for major new spending will take some time to gain traction in the Legislature. But there’s no reason lawmakers can’t move on the integration bonus now.
A grant program for districts that want to integrate shouldn’t be controversial either. And a commission to study the problem is the least Beacon Hill can do.
For too long, Massachusetts has tried to forget or ignore its segregation problem. Too many students have paid the price.
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