Massachusetts lawmakers are considering several bills this session aimed at promoting racially integrated schools, taking on the issue for the first time in several years amid the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd.
Recommendations include increasing the budget for the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or METCO, one of the country’s largest and longest-running voluntary school-desegregation programs, which buses 3,200 students of color in Boston and Springfield to predominantly white suburban schools, and a bill that proposes labeling each district and school among one of three categories: diverse, segregated, or intensely segregated.
“School segregation is definitely among the top issues that are affecting our students,” said Representative Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat and one of the lawmakers who filed bills on the topic. “It’s an obstacle in place as to why our students aren’t excelling to the level we know they’re able to.”
In the past decade, the number of “intensely segregated” Massachusetts schools serving children of color — meaning 90 percent of their students were Black, Latino, or Asian-American — increased by one-third to 192, according to a report last year by researchers at the Beyond Test Scores Project and the Center for Education and Civil Rights.
To address the increased segregation, the researchers called for an expansion of METCO. This year, the Legislature has shown support for raising METCO’s budget, but that slight increase would not be enough to add more students or communities to the program, which the researchers recommended.
Lawmakers described the legislative proposals as baby steps in tackling the highly complicated issue. Citing research showing both white students and students of color do better in diverse schools, many experts believe the increasing segregation of Black and Latino students harms their prospects for academic and career opportunity.
The segregation-labeling bill, filed by Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, also would create state grants for districts or groups of districts to develop and implement integration strategies. It would give priority to applicants pursuing inter-district or regional approaches, which experts say is critical in Massachusetts, where many school districts often don’t have much racial diversity within their borders.
Racial integration “is not an easy thing to do, as history has shown us, but we can’t just turn our heads the other way,” Crighton said. “We have to explore solutions.”
Labeling districts as segregated or diverse could help raise awareness, and increase parents’ pressure on leaders to take action — and it also could help sway families to settle down in a more racially diverse district, said Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. With better information, he said, families who care about racially integrated schools could help change the current cycles driving segregation.
That cycle, he said, occurs as affluent families clamor to buy houses in highly rated school districts, increasing housing prices and pushing less-wealthy people out. But school ratings are based on standardized test scores, which are closely correlated with race, income, and parental education levels, Schneider said, so they often only reflect demographic data, not school quality. But if these families instead saw that a top-rated, all-white school was “intensely segregated,” maybe they would seek out a more diverse school, Schneider said.
“What we need is to intentionally disrupt this pattern,” Schneider said. “You don’t know it from looking at those silly, reductive, invalid ratings of school quality, [but] those are demographic data in disguise that function as a segregation machine, especially when they’re baked into real estate websites.”
Some possibilities for grant-funded diversity initiatives could be cross-district magnet schools, or inter-district sports or arts programs, Schneider said.
The Legislature’s proposed funding increase for METCO for the coming year — between 4 and 9 percent higher than its $25.6 million budget last year — would allow METCO to keep up with rising transportation costs and offer additional pandemic-related academic, emotional, and social services to students.
But many politicians and experts, including Schneider, believe the state should also expand METCO to include more students and more communities to help address school segregation.
There’s some bipartisan support: Senator Patrick O’Connor, the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s joint education committee, said he supports working toward increased racial diversity in schools and wants METCO to receive greater funding to serve more students in additional districts.
“Down here my way, we don’t have many diverse school systems,” said O’Connor, who represents South Shore communities including Duxbury, Hingham, and Weymouth. METCO, he said, “is one of the best programs we offer.”
National experts say METCO should build upon its success. Perhaps a use of the grant funding could be an expansion of METCO that would enable suburban white students to be bused into Boston too, said Stefan Lallinger, director of The Century Foundation’s Bridges Collaborative on segregation.
“If Massachusetts is going to tackle this in a big way, it’s going to require that school districts work together,” Lallinger said.
But others disagree. Hardin Coleman, a Boston School Committee member and dean emeritus of Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education, believes the Legislature should focus its energy and funding around ensuring equitable funding for all school districts, rather than integration. He said Boston’s children of color would be better off if they all had access to well-funded schools with great teachers and small class sizes.
“METCO is a great missionary model, but saving a few kids is not a system-change model,” Coleman said. “It’s a racist idea that Black and brown students need to be around white students to do well.”
Integration advocates say they too believe equitable school funding is crucial, in addition to increasing racial diversity.
But Crighton and Tyler believe action is called for on desegregation; they have both filed a bill that would create a legislative commission on housing and school segregation.
Tyler also has filed a bill to assess METCO. She is concerned that the program, founded in 1966 by Black parents seeking better educational options for their children, may be hurting students of color more than helping them. Tyler recently pulled her daughter from the METCO program after she struggled with the racial isolation of being one of two Black children in her elementary-school grade in an affluent, mostly white suburb.
Tyler worries that many of the communities that accept METCO students aren’t doing enough to make students of color feel welcome and valued.
“Not every single one of these 33 cities and towns is fulfilling the mission of the METCO program correctly and that’s problematic,” Tyler said.
It’s a concern shared by METCO president and chief executive Milly Arbaje-Thomas, who said it’s “heartbreaking” to hear stories like Tyler’s, stories she understands well, having grown up as one of few students of color in a predominantly white school, where Arbaje-Thomas, who is Dominican-American, was called nicknames like “Tacos.”
Since Floyd’s death and the racial justice uprising, METCO has received requests to increase the number of students of color in its participating towns and add nine new towns to its program, Arbaje-Thomas said. More families want to participate than there are slots — last year, 1,200 students applied for 350 openings. But METCO would need significantly more funding to expand at that scale, she said, which the proposed grant funds could help with.
Arbaje-Thomas cautioned, though, that before adding new school districts, she wants them to spend a year working to improve the experience for their incoming students of color through efforts like hiring more diverse teachers, adding the experiences and contributions of people of color to the curriculum, and implementing restorative justice practices over discipline, which tends to be meted out more harshly on Black and Latino students.
“I don’t want to send our kids to towns anymore without them doing some work,” Arbaje-Thomas said. “I don’t want to have to convince people afterwards to do the work. Earn your spot.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.