Walpole resident, fellow at Massachusetts-based think tank Policy for Progress; 2020 candidate for state representative
School segregation issues run deep in Massachusetts. While the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) was intended as a short-term patch, the program has been striving for decades to address racial imbalances in our suburban schools, with limited impact. Our schools remain woefully segregated. We know that our children are growing up to be citizens of an increasingly diverse world. Segregated schools harm white and Black, indigenous, and children of color alike by creating insular communities that limit exposure to diverse cultures and experiences.
So it’s discouraging to see predominantly white school districts in the Boston suburbs opt out, year after year, from another existing, popular program in which school systems can welcome out-of-district students. The Legislature should require all districts to accept some students through the Inter-District School Choice program that has been on the books in Massachusetts since 1991, especially in areas that remain stubbornly segregated.
“School choice” is a politically loaded term, applied broadly to include private school voucher programs in other states. Not so for this program. The “choice” is not between a private and public school; It simply gives parents the option to send their children to a public school in another district.
Through the program, 14,403 students were enrolled in out-of-district schools in 2019-20, according to the Department of Education. That is more than four times the number of students in METCO. All districts are presumed to participate in the school choice program if they have enrollment space, but they can opt out annually. In the 2020-2021 school year, 168 districts were in the program while 151 opted out. But most of the opt-out districts are disproportionately wealthy suburban districts with few Black or Hispanic students, according to my analysis of state data. The opt-out provision undercuts the integration potential of this program.
One thing we know for certain is that there is a strong demand among families for sending their children to schools outside their own district, evidenced by the fact that for years there have been thousands of students on the waiting list for METCO. To encourage more diverse enrollments, participation in inter-district school choice should be mandatory.
Brendan R. Walsh
Former Salem School Committee member; former teacher, administrator in the Salem public schools; longtime member of Massachusetts Association of School Committees
My primary objection to making school choice mandatory stems from my opposition to racial, linguistic, and/or economic segregation. What do such things have to do with a “progressive” idea like “school choice?”
Everything! Racial, linguistic, and/or economic segregation are, in reality, the major accomplishments of school choice — intended or not. The program effectively allows wealthier school districts to poach predominantly white, English-speaking middle to upper-middle-class students from districts that serve all students, including high numbers of students of color, immigrants, and children who are economically disadvantaged or have special needs.
It encourages parents to abandon their local schools in the mistaken belief that their child will be attending school in a “better” school district. The concept of “better” is sold to people on the basis of MCAS scores, SAT scores, college acceptance percentages, and the like.
Not stated are the many findings that standardized test scores most correlate with the socio-economic status of the test takers, not the “quality” of the schools. College attendance rates are also driven by individuals’ socioeconomic status. Higher education is often not considered an option in the homes of poor children of parents with little to no education experience of their own and meager financial resources. The children of better-off, highly educated parents grow up with collegiate expectations not tamped down by questions like “How will we pay for it?”
I also oppose mandating school choice from the perspective of a person who served his community as a teacher and administrator for 37 years and as a member of the school committee for 12 years. No other instrument of our democracy is closer to its clientele than an elected school committee. No other body is constantly targeted by a power-hungry state bureaucracy and politicians, state and local, who should know better.
I suggest that if mandating school choice for all districts is a “progressive” idea, we really need to rethink what progressive policy is. Simply forcing more communities to take part in a program that does little to promote real integration in the classrooms is hardly a step toward a more equitable future. In fact, it’s a step backwards.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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