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State funding slashes put METCO on shaky ground

Talia Whyte | 4/15/2009, 5:24 a.m.

The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity Inc., better known as METCO, is facing an uncertain future as the economic downturn continues to take its toll on programs and social services dependent on state funding.

Founded in 1966 to address what many called de facto segregation and inequality in Boston’s public education system, the program allows about 3,300 underprivileged students from Boston and Springfield to attend schools in suburban communities. Since its beginnings during the turbulent era of busing, METCO has remained a fixture in local public education.

But Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposed state budget for the 2010 fiscal year recommends a 14.5 percent reduction in the program’s funding to about $18.5 million, down from just over $21.6 million in fiscal year 2009. The $3.1 million cut could jeopardize the program’s continued operation, according to METCO officials.

The 2010 budget recommendation is the latest in a string of funding reductions the program has seen in recent years.

According to statistics provided by METCO, in fiscal year 2008, participating suburban schools received $4,012 per METCO student in education funding, plus a transportation allotment to offset the cost of busing students. After $2.2 million in budget cuts, the allocation was reduced to $3,681 per METCO student for fiscal year 2009.

By contrast, the statewide average per-pupil funding amount in Massachusetts’ “foundation budget” — the definition of an adequate spending level for a school district, calculated by the state — was $9,332 for fiscal year 2009, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. For their part, the METCO Advisory Committee recommended per-pupil spending of $5,000 plus transportation.

The METCO line item faces another $900,000 in potential cuts when state legislators meet again this week.

Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Education, said METCO was not specifically targeted, as budget cuts had to be made across the board.

“It was not an easy decision for the governor to make these cuts to METCO, but there are many programs in the budget that are also facing cuts, too,” said Palumbo. “The governor has always been a supporter of METCO during better times, but unfortunately, times have become tough and we have to close the budget gap.”

METCO Executive Director Jean McGuire said she understands the state’s financial difficulty, but that the cuts go against the interest of educating children.

“I’m not saying the economy isn’t bad, but you can’t cut the children out,” McGuire said.

McGuire said that the cuts will affect not only the 3,275 students now participating in METCO, but also the more than 12,000 students on the waiting list to enter the program.

On top of that, McGuire said, METCO works. The program has accomplished many goals since its inception, including adding more racial diversity to suburban schools and helping to close the achievement gap between suburban white students and their urban and minority counterparts.

According to state Department of Education statistics, every METCO senior has passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests’ requirements in the last five years, and 87 percent of METCO graduates go on to college, a rate 10 percent higher than the state average college attendance rate.