The Utter Inadequacy of America’s Efforts to Desegregate Schools

Alana Semuels, Atlantic, April 11, 2019

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Eddie was a participant in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, one of the longest-running voluntary school-integration programs in the country. Started in 1966, METCO has bused thousands of students in Massachusetts—at least 200 in the first decade to 3,000 since the 1970s—from predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in the city of Boston and later Springfield to white, wealthy neighborhoods in the suburbs.

The original idea behind the program was to help black kids access better educational opportunities than those available in Boston, and to give white students in suburbia the opportunity to “share a learning experience with students with differing social, economic, and racial backgrounds,” as program backers put it at the time. Its founders assumed that it wouldn’t be necessary for long—soon, they hoped, housing segregation would dissipate and schools would be places where black and white students were educated alongside one another, without any busing necessary.

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METCO is a source of pride for many in Boston, a city known for its violent opposition to mandatory school busing in the 1970s. {snip}

METCO is especially important today, as the political appetite for integration—never great—seems to be waning. The Trump administration discontinued a $12 million Obama-era grant to help local school districts boost diversity, and is scaling back federal efforts to enforce fair-housing laws. It is throwing support behind charter schools, which teachers’ unions have argued are a way to undermine integration. Trump’s rhetoric has licensed public displays of racism, and the past year has surfaced politicians trying to suppress the black vote in Georgia, showing up in yearbook photos in blackface and Ku Klux Klan hoods, and warning that their black opponents would “monkey it up” if elected. Black Americans still face discrimination when applying for jobs, buying homes, and seeking medical care.

Massachusetts could be an example, a state pushing back against integration’s demise; it was, after all, where the first law prohibiting segregated schools was passed, in 1855. When METCO was established, suburban districts volunteered seats in their under-enrolled schools; in 1964, white families in Boston participated in a “Freedom Stay-Out,” boycotting segregated schools and speaking publicly about the need for integration. White residents living in wealthy suburbs wrote letters to the mayor of Boston asking the city to end “de facto segregation” of schools and spend more money on inner-city schools.

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Of course, Massachusetts also had its own significant racial problems, which often manifested around questions of school policy. In 1974, the Boston School Committee was found to have taken actions that intentionally segregated schools in the area. Violent opposition to the court-ordered school desegregation that followed earned Boston the reputation as one of the most racist cities in the country, a reputation that has not died. Racism was most prominent in the city, but it existed in the suburbs, too; letters to local newspapers about METCO in the program’s initial decades indicate that readers were worried about the “raping” of their school districts, city children bringing “inner-city diseases,” and their money being spent on other people’s kids.

It may not be surprising, then, that Massachusetts has turned into another example of a place that once seemed poised to integrate and is now just as segregated as it was decades ago. The housing integration that METCO’s founders thought would soon make the program unnecessary has not come to pass. White, affluent families in Boston self-segregate in wealthy suburbs, and then thwart attempts to build affordable housing developments nearby, despite state laws designed to prevent them from doing so. The median price of a single-family home in Belmont in 2016 was more than $1 million, nearly double the price of a home in Boston. Middlesex County, where some of the Boston area’s wealthiest suburbs are located, is 78 percent white and 5 percent black, according to census data, while Suffolk County, which includes the city of Boston, is 56 percent white and 21 percent black.

In fact, rather than fading away, school segregation has become more intense in recent years, in part because of this residential segregation. About 76 percent of the 54,000 students enrolled in the Boston public-school system are black or Latino.

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Segregation is growing within the school district, too, according to a Boston Globe analysis published last year. Sixty percent of Boston public schools are “intensely segregated,” up from 42 percent two decades ago, the analysis found. Students of color fill at least 90 percent of the seats in almost two-thirds of all schools, meaning the white students who do attend Boston public schools are concentrated into just a few places.

By contrast, METCO’s receiving districts are still extremely white. Just 3 percent of students enrolled in Belmont public schools are black, while 85 percent are white or Asian. Public schools in Lexington, Concord, and Wellesley are each about 4 percent black, and Newton is 4.7 percent black, according to state data. (These numbers include METCO students.)

Rather than trying to address this segregation head-on, though, Massachusetts, like many other states, has instead allowed it to persist. METCO is one of the only existing efforts to desegregate Massachusetts schools, and it is simply not up to the task, having stayed exactly the same size even as the suburban school districts that accept METCO students have grown in population. Belmont has 32 percent more students than it did in the 1997–1998 school year, and Lexington, another predominantly white suburb, has 30 percent more students. These numbers are typical of most METCO receiving districts. But there are still exactly the same number of METCO students as there were when the districts were much smaller.

This means that the ratio of METCO students to non-METCO students has fallen. Students get into METCO only if there are seats available, and they’re accepted in the order in which they sign up for the program; parents put their children on the wait list when they are born to get a better shot at admission. (METCO recently proposed a new admissions process, replacing the first-come, first-served system with a lottery, causing deep anxiety for parents who had signed their children up years ago.) The current wait list has 8,000 students on it.

Part of the problem is financial: Funding for the program has stagnated, while the costs of running it have risen. METCO is actually receiving less money from the state than it did in 2007 and 2008. {snip}

Much of the problem has to do with the way public schools in America are organized, which is to say largely by geography. As a result, because America’s housing is so racially segregated, so are its schools. There’s little enthusiasm among politicians or voters to overhaul that system.

Cities that have tried to upend it have found little success: The Supreme Court has, in recent years, limited the degree to which public schools can seek to increase racial integration through vouchers or transfers. Places such as the larger Louisville metropolitan area, which tried to preserve a commitment to regional school integration, have faced constant court challenges.

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METCO officially began in September of 1966, when 220 black students took buses from Boston to classrooms in seven suburban school districts, including Brookline, Lexington, Newton, and Wellesley. As the buses wended through the suburbs, the students gawked at the green grass and manicured trees, according to A History of METCO, a pamphlet by Ruth Batson and Robert Hayden, two of the program’s early leaders.

The program was created as a work-around. The Massachusetts legislature had passed a law in 1965 that made the segregation of public schools illegal, but the Boston School Committee, the governing body of Boston’s public schools, consistently refused to integrate schools, so the state began allowing students living in highly segregated districts to attend schools outside the districts where they lived. Parents were told that METCO would probably go on for three years or so, until Boston schools had straightened out their integration attempts, according to Batson and Hayden.

From the beginning, it was the state, not the receiving districts, that put up much of the money for the program. A bill passed in 1966 mandated that the state provide financial assistance to any town adopting a plan to address racial imbalance in schools, according to Eaton, the Brandeis professor. The program succeeded, at first, because “it was relatively small, districts got money along with the students, and [the receiving students] didn’t really have to have any significant financial or personal hardship,” Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Arizona State University and the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, told me.

Today, many districts still don’t have to put up much extra money to bring METCO to their schools. I{snip}

On average, the state provides a $4,147-per-student stipend to the receiving district. Districts spend anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per pupil on education, but METCO brings in other money too. Some districts receive about $12,000 per student in aid through Chapter 70, a Massachusetts program that seeks to remedy discrepancies between rich and poor districts, Hatch told me. This can mean that the presence of METCO students brings in more money than the district spends on those students. “You could say they’re more than breaking even on the program,” Hatch said.

(Some districts do spend more on METCO from their own budgets than they receive from the state. It can be hard to figure out which ones take in more than they spend. Belmont, for instance, received $9 million in Chapter 70 aid for 2019; its total school budget was about $69 million. When I asked the Belmont school district whether it spent town money on METCO, the superintendent’s office told me that the METCO program is totally funded by the state, and that no part of the town’s general-fund budget goes to the program.)

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Some of the funding originally given to districts that accepted METCO students has been phased out over the years. {snip}

Today, the committee that once gave out those incentives appears to have different priorities in mind, according to Eaton: Recent incentives have been available for districts trying to improve energy efficiency, but not for integration efforts. Districts have to rely more on taxpayers for new construction; last year, Belmont voters were asked to approve a ballot initiative that raised real-estate taxes in order to fund the construction of a new high school. The Foundation for Belmont Education raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the Belmont Public School system; it has given about $225,000 a year over the past decade to pay for books, professional development, and enrichment programs, among other things, Chris Kochem, the foundation administrator, told me.

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Over time, as the amount of state money going to address racial imbalance has shrunk, METCO has had a hard time getting more funding for the program. “Everybody loves the program, they think it’s needed, they think it’s doing great things, they think it should be expanded,” METCO’s chief executive, Milly Arbaje-Thomas, told me. “But they’re not willing to give up their [anti-] substance-abuse money or whatever thing they’re fighting for that they really care about.”

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Asking districts to put up their own money, or to open up a lot more seats for METCO students, is probably a nonstarter. When a town faces a tight budget, the METCO program is often one of the first things on the chopping block. Residents assume that since METCO adds additional students to classrooms, it costs them money, not realizing that their town gets state money for participating in the program, according to Jamie Gass, an education expert at the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank.

Asking towns to pay to educate the kids of people who live elsewhere has not proved popular in the past. {snip}

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As METCO funding has remained more or less stagnant, new obstacles have emerged for students who participate in the state’s biggest attempt at integration. Districts choose how to spend their METCO money, and, in the face of growing enrollments and limited funding, many are cutting the services that made life easier for METCO kids.

Belmont, for instance, used to have a bus that took students home from the high school; now kids have to take public transportation, which for many of them means two buses and two subway rides each way, each trip sometimes taking as long as two hours. Some districts have reduced the number of late buses, which enable METCO students to play sports or participate in school plays or other arts activities—in one district, a boy had to leave a basketball game halfway through because the last METCO bus was leaving, Claire Jones, the METCO director for Sharon, another suburb, told me. {snip}

As the suburban districts have grown in number of pupils, they are struggling to fit their current students in outdated school buildings, and can’t take on as many outside kids. The crowded state of many suburban schools is a contrast to the early days of METCO, in which those schools were under-enrolled. Today, METCO students make up 2 percent of the Belmont school district’s student body, down from about 3.5 percent in 1997. Some districts, including Belmont, don’t accept METCO students in some early grades if the classrooms are too full. According to a Belmont-district spokesperson, in 2017, because classrooms were so crowded, the district’s first-grade classes only had one METCO student. The district’s ninth-grade classes, by contrast, had 11 METCO students, many of whom had just entered the program.

That means many METCO students in Belmont and elsewhere start attending a white, suburban school in middle or high school, when kids already have hard-and-fast cliques. {snip}

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{snip} In 1999, the superintendent of schools in the suburb of Lynnfield proposed eliminating METCO because he said METCO students were bringing down the district’s average grades. He pointed out that some of the METCO students were getting low grades, but the district’s METCO counselor argued that this was because the students were made to feel unwelcome and teachers set low expectations for them. After significant pushback from students, the district decided to keep the program. Every few years in Belmont and in other districts, black students are called racist slurs, or those slurs are scrawled on school buildings, or some sort of other racist incident happens, and METCO students feel unwelcome once again.

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METCO has its flaws, but the fact remains that even 60 years after the civil-rights movement, parents of color in Boston know that one of the best ways to guarantee that their kids get a good education is to hope they get into the program so they can attend a white school in the suburbs. “If they have to get up at 5 a.m., and that’s what it takes to be in a school system that has adequate funding and resources, and a better chance at quality educational opportunities, that’s what people are willing to do,” Guisbond, of Citizens for Public Schools, says.

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The psychology professors Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp say that interacting with those different from oneself can make a person less prejudiced, a benefit they call “intergroup contact theory.” Pettigrew and Tropp have found that children who grow up in multiracial surroundings tend to be less anxious about racial differences, more empathetic and caring about others, and more likely to get involved in social change. They also express more interest in living in more ethnically diverse environments when they become adults. METCO didn’t make Belmont multiracial, exactly, but it was a step toward helping kids like me better understand the diversity of the world around them.

But unlike METCO students, who had to make significant sacrifices to come to Belmont, I had to forgo nothing at all. To be surrounded by all these different kids, to get the great education of a stellar school system, I would walk five minutes to middle school, past centuries-old houses with manicured gardens, or drive my beat-up Toyota Tercel down a big hill to the high school, which had a pond out front. I rarely thought about what Eddie and other students had to go through so that I could meet people different from me. I was so accustomed to METCO that for most of my time in school, I assumed it was a program that happened in every town in America.

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But METCO and integration more generally were not mentioned in the run-up to the debt exclusion. The focus is, and will always be, creating more space for kids from Belmont. That’s why people move to the suburbs, after all, paying millions of dollars for houses that are expensive to heat and have long driveways to shovel in winter so they can get into one of the best school districts in Massachusetts.

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