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Boston’s longstanding METCO program reflects decades of injustice in the city’s public schools

(Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) The METCO program contributes to the isolation of many of the students that the program buses. 

Emily Teague
Connector Editor

Boston’s METCO (Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity) program was introduced in 1966 following the Brown v. Board of Education supreme court case to decrease segregation in Boston’s public schools by busing black students to suburban white schools. 56 years later, the state-funded program still exists and busses thousands of students from communities of color to predominantly white schools in Boston’s suburbs.

“They designed this program, the METCO program, as a way to improve opportunities for students in Boston and, to add that, to diversify suburban schools. That was the intent of it, and it was actually supposed to be a short-lived program,” says Dr. Erica Gagne, who is a professor in the criminology and justice department at UMass Lowell with research focused on injustice and specifically, Boston’s METCO program. “It’s alarming to me that this busing can still exist,” Gagne says, “there was court ordered busing in the 1970s to desegregate schools because so many people were so opposed to integrating schools, and essentially, it’s still the same.”

METCO’s longstanding legacy reflects a larger legacy of systemic racial and class injustices. Gagne says, “The problem is that in this country we think everybody starts in the same playing field, when in fact they don’t, and this is a program that shows you exactly how we don’t.”

Gagne says suburban schools today still have significantly higher graduation rates and offer more resources, like college counselling, compared to Boston’s public schools, especially those in high poverty areas. “What’s kept [METCO] going is this idea that all these kids in Boston can have a better opportunity if they go out to the suburbs,” Gagne said. “It’s a thriving program. They always have a waiting list.”

Despite the program’s popularity and proven track record of increasing participants’ likelihood of graduating high school and attending college, participating in the program negatively affects some students. “The students that are in it–they end up living in limbo because they go to the schools in these white suburbs, and they’re sort of, in some ways outcasted,” Gagne says, “They get like a host family of sorts, or something along those lines, but it doesn’t mean that they’re accepted by all students because they’re in a place where everybody is white, so they come from a completely different background.”

METCO students are not just separated from their peers in their suburban schools but also in their own communities. “When they go home to their environment where they live, which is usually late in the day because they take a bus all the way in and all the way out, they’re sort of alienated by their communities because there’s kind of a rift between METCO students and kids who go to the public schools in Boston… Like, they’re not accepted by their peers in Boston; they’re not accepted by the kids in the suburbs.”

Boston’s neighborhoods remain segregated today, and its public schools in high poverty areas and communities of color still have low graduation rates and less support for students. “If you have to create a situation where people have to be bussed out or go to charter schools or any of those things, then what you’re essentially saying is that not all schools are equal and that, you know, the schools in Boston provide less opportunities in those areas for kids than the ones in the suburbs, which shows inequality,” Gagne said. “This is an embarrassment, I think, to Massachusetts, which is supposed to be somewhat of a progressive place, but, in fact, it’s not that progressive because we’re still incredibly segregated.”

Ending the METCO program could potentially help improve Boston’s struggling schools instead of removing students from their communities and providing suburban schools with more money. Gagne says, “People don’t really think about what the METCO program is, or they don’t know about it. But I do think that somebody, somewhere should point this out and say: Wait a minute–why do we have a busing situation? Simply take the money that we use for METCO and improve the schools and then not have these kids bussed, not have them live in limbo and actually make the schools better in Boston.”

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