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EDITORIAL

Time to equalize and modernize Metco

Milagros Arbaje-Thomas (left), the new chief executive of Metco.
Milagros Arbaje-Thomas (left), the new chief executive of Metco. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

For the last 50 years, the state’s immensely successful Metco program has helped generations of Boston school kids by placing them in high-performing suburban school districts, where they often get a better education than they would have received if they’d stayed in the city’s public school district. But there is room to improve the program, which can be difficult for parents to navigate, and officials deserve credit for tackling changes that have already provoked resistance.

Since its creation, the voluntary desegregation program — which currently buses about 3,100 students from Boston to 33 suburban school districts — has become so popular that there is a current wait list of 15,406 kids, including babies and toddlers who are not yet of school age.

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Right now, Boston parents sign up using paper forms, and can put their child’s name on the waiting list right after birth. The children of parents who don’t understand how the system works have a big disadvantage: By the time they reach school age, they’re already way down the list. In-the-know and connected parents thrive.

New rules suggested by Metco would end both the wait list and the paper applications. Under the proposal, parents could create online profiles to submit applications and track where their children stand in the process, something they can’t do right now. Instead of putting their kids’ names on a wait list as infants, parents would be allowed to apply only when their children are age-eligible, and seats in the program would be assigned at random each year. Those not chosen would have the chance to resubmit their applications annually during a designated period of time. The current sibling priority would remain the same. The changes would make selection to Metco closer to the luck of the draw, and put the children of immigrants closer to the same footing as multigenerational residents.

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What’s not to like? As it turns out, plenty.

At a community meeting in Dorchester last week, Metco officials faced an outpouring of criticism from parents.

One Metco alumna and parent of a student in the program argued the hassles and hurdles to signing up for Metco were actually an advantage. “When you want dedicated parents . . . you don’t want to make everything so easy.” Referring to the current enrollment system, she said she doesn’t see a problem with having to bring in three applications and three copies of everything, which is how parents apply now.

Another common theme: The new plan is not fair for those who have been on the wait list for so long. Those parents have put in their time and earned their slot, in their view.

But no one has earned a spot in Metco. It is a state-funded program with a $22 million budget that must be made available to every single Boston child.

Still, it’s easy to understand the tension, because Metco’s mission has become muddled. The program was established in 1966 to tackle the racial segregation of mostly-white suburban communities. The idea was to bring in inner-city students of color to better integrate these schools. But the reason why the program is so popular with some Boston parents, and why they’re so protective of it, is because of the profound equity gaps within the Boston school system that don’t guarantee a high-performing school for all Boston children. Metco might have been envisioned as a school desegregation program, but it’s become a lifeline for desperate parents in Boston who want access to wealthier, high-achieving suburban districts.

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Milagros Arbaje-Thomas, the new chief executive of Metco, acknowledges that some families turn to Metco looking for a better opportunity for their kids. “But what do we want the next 50 years of Metco to be? My crusade with this program is to re-educate people of its original mission,” she said in an interview. The receiving districts, she added, “see it completely different. They opened the door to Metco because they value diversity.”

She also pointed to recent research that shows Metco students outperform their BPS and charter school peers. That data, she said, is a reminder of why the program must improve its equity of access, and a validation of its original mission of integration. It’s also why this page has urged legislators to recognize Metco’s full value and fund a substantial expansion.

The final details of the new rules can be tweaked. Perhaps there’s a way to grandfather some students on the wait list while phasing in the plan. But Metco’s first-come, first-serve application process has lacked transparency and fairness for too long. Its modernization should go forward.