Growing up in New Haven, I went to magnet schools that drew kids from surrounding suburbs. Parents chose these schools because they were well-funded, with state-of-the-art buildings, innovative curriculums, and diverse student bodies. I was fortunate to benefit from the high-quality education that they offered. If I’d been raised in Massachusetts, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity.
Despite the well-established benefits of magnet schools, Massachusetts defunded all support for them when courts relaxed pressure on schools to desegregate in the 1990s. The state didn’t just abandon efforts to create more integration through magnets, it also gave up entirely on voluntary integration, leaving only the METCO program, which was fiercely defended by suburbs. Suburban residents there wanted to feel like they supported equity, even as they fought housing projects that would have created affordable homes for families with limited means.
The state’s failure to provide leadership for the past two decades has left Massachusetts schools highly segregated by race and ethnicity. They are also increasingly segregated by income.
Concentrating students into classrooms of haves and have-nots is extremely damaging. The economic circumstances of the students in the schools you attend have far more influence on your academic achievement than your family’s resources. With race and income intertwined, the sorting of students into schools by income breeds racial inequality.
Massachusetts’ failure to forestall growing segregation is especially unfortunate because integration benefits all students. Those benefits include improvements in critical thinking, increases in cultural competence, enhanced leadership skills, and reductions in racial bias.
In a global economy, parents appreciate these benefits. A recent survey found a majority of Massachusetts voters across race, income, and political leanings want the state to do more to promote integration. With leadership from the next governor, progress is possible without resorting to lawsuits that could sow more conflict than integration.
The next administration can begin by doubling down on initiatives that promote voluntary integration.
Early-college high school is one example. These high schools give students a head start on college, dramatically increasing the likelihood that low-income students will complete postsecondary degrees. Middle-class students are also drawn to early-college high schools by the opportunity to take more challenging courses and reduce college expenses.
Dual-language immersion is another powerful integration model with momentum in Massachusetts. Students in these schools receive instruction in two languages. Children with limited English perform dramatically better when they acquire English while also strengthening their native tongue. Native English speakers gain the ability to speak a second language and the significant cognitive gains that come with foreign language studies.
Early-college high schools work best when located near college campuses, and dual-language schools are most successful when they can draw from concentrations of immigrant students. Cities have these ingredients, which position them to employ these models to attract middle-income residents to their neighborhoods. But they can also deploy them to bring students from different communities together without changing residential patterns.
Transportation is the biggest barrier to this approach. Fortunately, Massachusetts has an asset that few states can brandish: 400 miles of commuter rail track. METCO students have long utilized commuter rail. With recent schedule changes, service is spread more evenly throughout the day, which makes it even easier for students to commute by train to magnet schools, whether they are in cities or suburbs.
A new housing law requiring suburbs to permit multifamily housing near MBTA stations also positions Massachusetts to increase integration. These housing developments should include family-size units that are more affordable than single-family homes. Equally important, proximity to transit will make it possible to get by with only one car. (Transportation costs currently prevent many low-income families from living in suburbs even when they can find suitable housing).
As a child of immigrants and a former English-language learner who rose up through New Haven’s public schools to go on to the University of Pennsylvania, my journey is a testament to the benefits of integrated education. Massachusetts must make opportunities to learn in integrated classrooms available to all.
Simone Ngongi-Lukula is the Education Equity Fellow at MassINC. She is coauthor of the new report “Choosing Integration.”