Its official name is the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity and it has been one of Massachusetts’ most durable education programs.
Started in 1966, METCO overcame initial reluctance and modern-day budget cuts to afford inner city students a chance to receive a high school education at some of the state’s most well-heeled suburban schools. Those schools were considered “racially imbalanced” at the time, and the thought was that METCO students would provide a temporary solution until state-wide diversity goals were met. Three years, most agreed, would be enough time.
Nearly 45 years later, METCO is still up and running and producing college-bound students. In a recent study by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, METCO was praised for its focus on improving education for thousands of students, many of whom would have been forced to attend inner city public schools unable to afford the resources that its suburban neighbors could provide with its higher tax base.
“What was so surprising to us was the extraordinarily high level of parent satisfaction with the education their children were receiving,” said Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Education, and the project’s director. “While parents certainly had plenty of suggestions for improving the program, they were offered not from a cynical or critical perspective, but from a foundation of improving a positive experience.”
The study found that parents enrolled their children in METCO for academic reasons, with 70 percent saying it was the most important factor in choosing the program. When asked what they would do without METCO, only 25 percent said they would enroll their children in a local Boston school, and another 25 percent said they would seek a magnet or exam school. While the remaining half said they had other plans, 20 percent of the METCO parents said they would probably or definitely leave Boston if METCO were not available, and only 50 percent said they would keep their family in the city.
It’s been a long road. On Sept. 7, 1966, 220 Boston students were bused to seven different school districts — Arlington, Braintree, Brookline, Lexington, Lincoln, Newton and Wellesley. Since then, the number of METCO communities has increased to 32, with more than 2,880 Boston families and 100,000 suburban families participating in the program. By its 40th anniversary, approximately 9,500 METCO students have graduated and most have moved on to seek advanced degrees and pursue professional careers.
Jean M. McGuire has directed METCO since 1973 and has witnessed the program at its best and worst. She grew up in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., during the 1930s and ’40s, an era when schools were separate and unequal. At the time, she dreamed of becoming a pilot, like her Tuskegee Airman cousin, or a doctor.
“We all have the ability to do something good,” McGuire told the Banner in a recent interview. “We just need the proper resources to help make our goals and abilities possible.”
As it is now, METCO has a waiting list of more than 12,000 students. The reason is clear. According to recent state Department of Education statistics, every METCO senior has passed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test requirements in the last five years, and 87 percent of METCO graduates go on to college, 10 percent higher than the state average college attendance rate.
But budget cuts have become a modern day reality — even with Gov. Deval Patrick, an ardent supporter of education.
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.
But McGuire has withstood potential budget cuts before — and remains steadfast. METCO, she explains, has been a “win-win.”