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Desegregation: METCO and the Nation--contemporary politics full paper

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Contemporary Politics of METCO

Ann Cheng


     The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, METCO, is the “longest continuously running voluntary school desegregation program” in the United States (Schofield 384).   Based in Boston and Springfield, METCO’s mission is to provide both educational and cultural opportunities to Boston’s urban and suburban students by allowing parents from Boston to enroll their children in suburban schools, whose parents choose to accept students from Boston (METCO website).  In this section of the Wiki Project, I will contrast two contemporary views of METCO.  For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the groups of people who fall under these two views as the “integrationists” and the “qualityists.” For people in the integration camp, METCO is seen as progress towards having black and brown children in the same classrooms as white children, and thus ensuring that they receive the same education.  For people in the education quality camp, METCO is seen as a very small and problematic band-aid that is draining resources from the root problem, which is that minority children in Boston are not getting a good or fair education. While integration and quality may not seem to be at odds, because of political realities, at scale they are essentially mutually exclusive.  In this paper I will first provide brief background on METCO.  Then I will explain the qualityists’ argument against METCO and the integrationists’ argument for it.  Finally, I will investigate the political realities of the situation and METCO’s future.

     As of 2007, METCO served 3289 city students of color from all of Boston’s neighborhoods, and involved 38 suburban schools (A Salute to METCO).  Started by “black parents and activists who originally saw the program as a partial and temporary remedy for the poor conditions in Boston’s then-segregated, predominantly black schools,” with support and initiative from suburban activists, METCO predates the court-ordered busing of the 1970s (Eaton 3).  Most of the money supporting METCO comes from Massachusetts’s government, with the remaining funds being provided by the participating suburban school districts (Eaton 5).  METCO has a central office in Roxbury and satellite directors in the suburbs to coordinate specifics and support students (Eaton 5).  Given this brief summary of METCO, I will now move on to the two dominant views surrounding METCO today.

The first perspective I will discuss is that of the qualityists, the people who are less concerned about integration and are instead focused on the quality of urban education.  This group of people, as epitomized by Community Organizer Janine Quarles,  argues that METCO does not serve their goals because it does not solve the basic problem: low quality education for inner-city students (Quarles).  According to BPS at a Glance, There are 56,340 students in Boston Public Schools, and so METCO serves approximately 5% of the city’s public school students.  Because this number is so small, METCO is neglecting the majority of students, who are left in less desirable schools. 

     Not only is METCO only serving a small portion of Boston’s students—it also comes at huge emotional costs to the participating students.  Prominent in the minds of the former METCO student that I interviewed and also those in Susan Eaton’s book are instances of racism, classism, and emotional trauma that made METCO an unpleasant experience.  One black METCO student remembers a white student who “picked up the eraser off the board, and…put the chalk all over my face,” (Eaton 49).  When asked about drugs by his classmates because he was from a black, urban neighborhood, a METCO student in Eaton’s book says, “… it was ridiculous…we were heavy churchgoers and my family was just so straight” (Eaton 51).  Another student in Eaton’s book remembers white students muttering “nigger” and moving seats when she sat down, and a white teacher ignoring it (Eaton 58).  A young woman I interviewed recalls an event at Lincoln-Sudbury high school: “This boy got stabbed in the boys bathroom by another boy, and what really shocked me was we was in the METCO room …and there was like 2 or 3 people in the cafeteria that was black and all the other black kids was locked in the METCO room.  And one of the black kids in the cafeteria heard someone say, ‘I bet it was a METCO student’”.  She also spoke about a class that only METCO students took. “So in the METCO program we have this class called cultural identity or something.  It was supposed to teach us about black history or whatever but only for the METCO students.  We had this talk like we feel like the other rest of Lincoln should take this class too.  We’re learning about stereotypes and oppression but we’re the ones that are aware.  They’re the ones that should be taking that class.” 

Internalizing much of what was said to them and done to them, the students felt the weight of low expectations (Eaton 74-75).  They resented the idea that they were to be “fixed” by the suburbs (Eaton 79), that they had to represent an entire race (Eaton 92), that there was no structured dialog about race (Eaton 97).  The results of such stark and intense code-switching between home and school, between black and white, between urban and suburban, between poor and rich were harmful and confusing and left many METCO students feeling lost in both the suburbs and the city, in one place for being black, in another for “acting white” (Eaton 69).  Overall, the students in METCO almost all recall instances of scarring racism.

     The second view I will discuss in this paper is that of the integrationists.  For this group of people, METCO is achieving its goal because black and brown students are sitting next to white students.  Without METCO, the suburbs would remain almost entirely white, while the city would remain mostly students of color.  During my interview with John Shandorf, he often brought up the positive effect of METCO upon white students.  When asked about the effects of METCO on black and brown students, Shandorf mentioned the difference in graduation rates of students in METCO vs. those in Boston city schools, noting too the expectation of college is a given in METCO’s suburban host schools, a feature not always true of city schools.  In response to the idea that METCO is not scalable because it is impossible to send every city kid out to the suburbs, Shandorf said that METCO is not for everyone—some kids even drop out of METCO, he explained.  Perhaps the element of Shandorf’s interview that was most striking was his focus on integration, even if with a small proportion of city kids, and even at high emotional costs to them.  So long as brown and black and white are sitting together, the integrationists are pleased, despite the emotional affects and the infeasibility of scale.

     Thus we are left with a choice: either we can focus on integration, in which case METCO accomplishes a certain, if small, amount, or we can focus on better education for all of the city students.  For the integrationists, ending METCO and focusing instead on city education would be a loss—they would argue that METCO provides both a good education and integration, and that separate educations are fundamentally unequal, so if there is not integration there is not good education.  But realistically, the political climate is not one which will soon allow for forced busing—for we must remember that for all their willingness to accept METCO students, suburban parents are not suggesting putting their own children on buses and sending them into the city.  Residential integration would solve many school segregation issues—but that, also, is not likely to happen soon.  Additionally, we must remember why city parents sign up for METCO.  According to Susan Eaton, parents want “a better education” (26-27).  METCO participants agree—“it was worth it”, is the response of both my interviewee and the overwhelming majority of Eaton’s interviewees.  “Even those adults with primarily negative memories of suburbia say they would indeed return to METCO,” Eaton writes (21).  Why is this?  The bus rides were long, the racism awful, the code-switching exhausting—but despite all of that, despite being last-picked for teams and having chalk rubbed on one’s face and being assumed to be slow and being accused of violence—METCO was still better than staying in the city.  The alternative is that bad, parents and students say.  And so I conclude that while METCO does provide an opportunity to learn next to students of other races, and while it does significantly raise graduation rates and college-going rates and provide an academic experience that does not currently exist in the city, it is not a solution.  The motives of the urban students and parents speak: it is good education that Boston needs, more than integration.  While ideally these would not be mutually exclusive, in Boston, in 2009, at scale, they essentially are.  METCO is a problematic yet worthwhile band-aid for a small percentage of students, but it is not a solution to the fundamental problem: lack of opportunity for low-income students of color in Boston.  




A Salute to METCO.    <http://www.metcoalumni.org/pdf%20files/salute_to_metco_aboutmetco_andfactsheet.pdf>


Eaton, Susan E.  The Other Boston Busing Story.  New Haven: Yale University Press,    2001.


Former METCO Student.  Personal Interview.  23 Oct 2009.


METCO website. <http://www.metcoinc.org/aboutus.htm>.


Quarles, Janine.  Personal interview.  4 Nov 2009.


Schofield, Janet W. "Review: Inside Desegregated Schools: Understanding How and    Why They Influence Students." American Journal of Education 109.3 (2001):    383-90. JSTOR. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <http://www.jstor.org.ezp-    prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/1085781?seq=2&Search=yes&term=metco&list=hid    e&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dmetco%26x%3D0%2    6y%3D0%26wc%3Don&item=3&ttl=58&returnAr>.


Shandorf, John. Personal interview. 6 Nov 2009.


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