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State funding slashes put METCO on shaky ground

Talia Whyte

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.

Given that, “there is no excuse for cutting back this program, especially as it has provided great opportunities for children who wouldn’t [have] them otherwise,” McGuire said. “Why break something that works?”

Hyde Park resident Hilda Bautista said she has put three sons through the METCO program. Her youngest son, Oscar, is now a senior at Belmont High School, and her two older sons, Juan and Odalix, graduated from Foxborough and Concord-Carlisle High Schools before attending the Massachusetts College of Art and Emerson College, respectively.

“The cuts are scary, especially for women like me who are single mothers and trying to do best for their children,” Bautista said. “The kids that graduate from METCO are blessed because they have teachers who really do take them under their wings and help guide them through their education.”

Cherie Craft of Dorchester has two children in the METCO program — Christian, a junior at Braintree High School, and Timothy, a seventh-grader at Brookline’s William Lincoln School. Craft herself is a product of METCO, having graduated from Wellesley High School in Wellesley.

“I know first hand the benefits of a METCO education, and since the governor graduated from Milton Academy through a similar program, you would think he would be more sensitive to this issue,” Craft said.

Craft said her daughter Christian is an honor-roll student and the president of her class and participates in a variety of after-school programs on the Braintree campus. Because of budget cuts, however, the bus that brought her home to Dorchester twice a week following her extracurricular activities has been cut altogether this year. Christian now has to take public transportation home. The trip usually takes an hour, and she’s often traveling after dark by herself.

“She is taking two honors and three [Advanced Placement] classes, and she is on track for applying to Ivy League colleges,” her mother continued. “She spends more time traveling than actually preparing for her future.”

Christian Craft had the opportunity to talk to the governor about the impact of the METCO cuts during a recent student forum on the program’s budget. Her mother said she received a similar answer about cuts being made to many programs, not just METCO.

“The METCO experience has given my children the opportunity to strive for excellence,” Cherie Craft said. “The governor needs to give a better excuse for the cuts than that.”