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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Metco wants to expand student enrollment but faces a fight on Beacon Hill over funding

Dorchester's Skylar Heflin Greenaway stood by her mother, Jennel Heflin, as she chatted with METCO representatives for Lexington Public Schools to hear what the district has to offer.Libby O'Neill for The Boston Globe

Metco, Greater Boston’s racial integration program for public schools, is pushing the Legislature to approve $2.8 million or more in additional funding for next year so more of the city’s students can enroll in suburban schools and to cover rising costs.

The expansion of the 57-year-old voluntary program would be modest in size, potentially bumping up enrollment by about 100 students. Currently, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc. supports more than 3,100 Boston students in 33 suburban districts and operates on a $28.9 million annual budget.

Metco leaders originally hoped to roll out the expansion for this school year in Hingham, Marblehead, Natick, Newton, Swampscott, and Wayland, but the Legislature and Governor Maura Healey didn’t include the request for a 10 percent increase in this year’s state budget, derailing the expansion plans.

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Instead, state leaders level-funded Metco for the first time since 2018, which caused participating suburban districts to scramble to find money to offset the inflationary costs of maintaining the program while also putting expansion efforts on hold.

“We weren’t asking for that much money,” said Milly Arbaje-Thomas, Metco’s president and chief executive officer. “I want us to have a fair distribution of the funds.”

The state’s unwillingness to increase the program’s funding further stings, Arbaje-Thomas said, as the state collected $1 billion in additional revenue from the new millionaires tax, which specifically is allocated for education and transportation, the twin pillars of Metco.

The program’s biggest costs are busing students between Boston and the suburbs, and staffing districts with directors, social workers, and other positions. Individual districts also kick in money. The program’s funding reimburses districts about $8,300 per Metco student, while overall per-pupil spending in most Metco districts is about $15,000 or higher.

Districts have made cuts in ways to minimize impacts on students, putting new efforts such as adding more late-running buses for after-school activities on hold, and digging into their own finances, Arbaje-Thomas said. Metco will continue to lobby lawmakers for supplemental funding for the current school year to help address inflationary costs.

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Dorchester's Natalia Mendez looked on as her mother Cindy Maltez filled out forms during METCO's annual showcase.Libby O'Neill for The Boston Globe

Tyesha Lyttle, who has four children in the Metco program in Bedford, said state leaders should support Metco’s expansion, noting many families wait too long to get seats. It took Lyttle four years to get her children into the program.

Previously, her children were enrolled in Boston Public Schools and charter schools, where she said she had concerns about the quality of education and worried about neighborhood violence — particularly gang activity — creeping into school life. Now her children, she said, have a top-notch education, ample extracurriculars, and fun field trips, like apple picking. School staff also are in constant communication with her about her children’s progress.

“My children’s experience with Metco has been superb,” Lyttle said.

Delaney Corcoran, spokesperson for the state’s Executive Office of Education, defended Metco’s funding level.

“The Healey-Driscoll administration is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in Massachusetts schools,” she said in a statement. “Our FY24 budget includes historic levels of funding for K-12 schools, including nearly $30 million for the Metco program and full funding for the Student Opportunity Act.”

Metco started in 1966, under the Racial Imbalance Act, to provide Boston students, particularly Black students, the opportunity to learn in suburban districts with strong academic records. About two-thirds of Metco students are Black and a quarter are Latino, while only 2 percent are Asian American, according to state data. Metco students, however, tend to be more affluent than their BPS peers, according to Metco data.

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Springfield also operates a Metco program with about 100 students who attend four neighboring school districts.

Boston students who attend the program typically have stronger academic success than their peers in BPS, according to a 2019 Harvard Graduate School of Education report. The four-year high school graduation rate for Metco students and their college-enrollment rates were about 30 percentage points higher than for students of similar demographics in BPS, the report found.

Students gain entry into the program each year via a lottery and application process, which is currently underway. In an effort to give disadvantaged students more of an edge in the application process last year, Metco stopped requiring applicants to submit their school records.

The program received 1,217 applications for 414 available seats for the 2023-24 school year. Once Metco draws an applicant’s name from the lottery, the program forwards the application to the appropriate district for review, which typically involves the family visiting the district.

A number of suburbs in recent years — spurred by a nationwide racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd by police — have expressed an interest in expanding their programs and a few already have.

The six districts that hoped to expand this school year may need to restart their efforts. Several of the districts had changes in superintendents as well as some turnover on their school committees. Consequently, Metco is asking the districts to obtain a new vote from their committees to ensure new leadership is committed to expanding.

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Hingham’s superintendent, Margaret Adams, said her district had planned to add 30 students to its Metco program, which currently serves about 50 students, but couldn’t after the state didn’t support Metco’s funding increase. Overall student enrollment in the district is 3,800.

“We were disappointed not to have the opportunity to grow the program, given its long and proud history in Hingham,” said Adams, noting her district began its Metco program in 1967.

Adams intends to ask her School Committee to support the expansion again for next year, she said.

Wayland also is planning to ask its School Committee again for a small expansion of 10 students if the state funding comes through, said La Toya Rivers, Wayland’s Metco director. The program currently has 129 students, while the district’s overall student enrollment is about 2,800.

Rivers expressed disappointment with the state’s decision not to increase Metco funding; the funding shortage prevented the district from adding a late bus for Metco middle school students who participate in after-school activities.

“When they level-fund us it’s a disservice to our students,” Rivers said. “Our kids deserve the funding.”



James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.