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METCO and the Nation History

Page history last edited by pbworks 8 years, 3 months ago

A Brief History          


          The history of racial integration in the Boston public school system began with Brown v. Board in 1954.  Put briefly, the Supreme Court found that schools segregated by race were “inherently unequal” and ordered the desegregation of all public schools.[i]  Because Brown and Brown II provided a vague timeline for school integration by ordering that efforts take place “with all deliberate speed,” challenges followed that aimed to stall desegregation indefinitely.  In spite of these challenges, support for integrating schools was around the corner.  The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provided the federal government with the tools it needed to speed up integration efforts.  For example, Titles IV and VI were specifically included to accelerate and support the desegregation of America’s public schools.[ii]  Nonetheless, Massachusetts has failed to desegregate its public schools.

            The desegregation of public schools was examined closely in the years following the Brown decision.  Fortunately for proponents of desegregation, it appeared that opinions among whites were softening and integration in schools was gaining legitimacy during the 1960s.  One study that contributed to desegregation efforts in public schools was the Coleman Report.  Commissioned by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1966, the study was conducted by a group of professionals and educators to determine “the state of desegregation in public schools and the impact of the Civil Rights Act on desegregated public education.”[iii]  The commission found that racial integration was a key factor in improving the achievement of African-American students.[iv]  A strong argument in favor of desegregating public schools was thus built around the issue of equal opportunity.  Put simply, proponents of desegregation argued that segregated schools were not providing black students with equal educational opportunities.  Ultimately, the implication that environment mattered more than educational-financing provided the impetus for mandatory busing as both a solution to segregation and a way to motivate and improve the educational achievement of African-American students.[v]  These findings, though controversial, were accepted as fact by many policymakers.  As some proponents of busing viewed it, “the issue is not whether or not to bus, but whether or not to integrate, for there is no way to achieve integration except by busing.”[vi]  However, little was done to deal with racial imbalance in public schools throughout the 1960s, something that was apparent to many.  In Massachusetts, this was a problem without a clear solution.

Put simply, integration through mandatory busing was rare and other strategies were not meeting the challenge.  One example is the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO), a voluntary desegregation program started in 1966.[vii]  Although METCO successfully sent predominantly black students from Boston schools to suburban schools, the number of students enrolled in the program was small.  For example, in 1970 there were 29 METCO-receiving districts that enrolled approximately 1,400 students.[viii]  Thus, even though METCO students attended relatively affluent schools where they accounted for “almost all black and Hispanic students” in the district, the volume of black and Hispanic METCO participants was too miniscule to matter for desegregation efforts.  Some black leaders gave up on getting educational equality through voluntary busing and didn’t think mandatory busing would be effectively implemented anytime soon.  As such, they sought to strengthen education in predominantly African-American schools with the support of parents and with the acquisition of more resources.[ix]  African-American parents in Boston subscribed to this belief, but they decided to take matters into their own hands by setting up community schools with the goal of providing their children with better educational opportunities than they were getting in the Boston public School system.[x]  This approach was supported by busing opponents, those who favored “quality education” for underachieving students (a concept that meant providing predominantly-minority schools with special/compensatory education and more money).[xi]   The alternatives to mandatory busing, however, proved insufficient in Massachusetts. 

In 1974, Judge W. Arthur Garrity found public schools in Massachusetts were “deliberately segregated.”[xii]  As such, he forced the Boston School Committee to implement a state-prepared integration plan in September, 1974 and to prepare a permanent plan by December 16, 1975.[xiii]  With his June, 1974 ruling in Morgan v. Hennigan, commonly known as “the Boston Schools Case,” Judge Garrity endorsed busing and implicitly validated the notion that African-American students would perform better and be treated more equally if taught in classrooms with white students.  The rationale for mandatory busing was that “the probability of equal educational opportunities for black or other minority youth” would increase; something that everyone agreed was necessary.[xiv]  As busing advocate John A. Finger, Jr. argued, “there is a categorical truth in the United States: Black children attending predominantly Black schools are attending schools which are inferior in every dimension.”[xv]  Integration in Boston via busing, however, was easier said than done.

The most visible display of just how difficult implementing busing would be was in Boston.  As detailed in the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, September 12, 1974 was the beginning of the forced integration of Boston public schools.[xvi]  The two schools profiled in the series, Roxbury High and South Boston High, reacted very differently to the mandate.  At Roxbury High, the first day of school was calm.  A committee of black parents gathered and waited inside the school to meet the few white students that were being bused as part of the integration efforts.  In South Boston High, by contrast, white parents formed an angry mob and greeted black students with shouts and glares.  When the school day was over, these parents hurled rocks and eggs at the school buses transporting the black students.  As integration efforts persisted, angry white parents in South Boston staged a citywide school boycott.  At its peak, over 50% of kids were held out of school, and white parents that chose not to participate were derided as “sellouts” and confronted with violence.  Violent confrontations soon followed.  In October of that same year, a mob of whites pulled a black motorist from his vehicle and beat him, an action which angered blacks in Roxbury and prompted retaliatory behavior.  Following this incident, blacks in Roxbury got involved in the fray and started throwing rocks at white passers-by.  A mini-war was brewing as a result of forced busing.

Marred by race-based hate and violence, busing in Boston largely failed to integrate schools.  The years that followed were characterized by white flight from Boston public schools and, as a result, seemingly more segregation than before.  For example, “between 1973 and 1987…the percentage of white students in the Boston public schools dropped from 60% to 26%.”[xvii]  In spite of efforts to integrate schools and improve public education with magnet programs, Boston could not effectively integrate its public schools.[xviii]  

Fortunately, METCO remains a tool for integration.  As of the 2001-2002 school year, there were 33 METCO-participating districts in the Greater Boston Area with approximately 2,907 students enrolled.[xix]  In the Springfield Area, there were four more METCO-participating districts with approximately 135 students enrolled, bringing the Massachusetts total to 37 participating districts with roughly 3,042 participants.[xx]  Unfortunately, the number of METCO participants amounts to a paltry five percent of the Boston district.[xxi]  Worse yet, demographic data of METCO-participating districts reveals that “METCO students account for a substantial portion of the black and Hispanic students in receiving districts,” an indication that minorities are minimally enrolled in higher performing districts outside of the program.[xxii]  These numbers, just like the METCO participation numbers of the early 1970s, strongly indicate that METCO remains an insufficient solution for desegregation.

To get a better sense of METCO’s impact, I interviewed the mother of a METCO student.[xxiii]   During the interview, Elicia R. expressed gratitude for the program.  She highlighted her son’s exceptional writing skills and credited METCO with his success.  However, there were some problems she had with the program.  For one, she and her son felt racial tension at times, and often got the sense that school administrators didn’t like METCO kids.  Moreover, she felt the geographical distance was a barrier that acted to limit her interactions with her son’s teachers, thus limiting her ability to work with his teachers to help her son.  Ultimately, she decided the distance was too much to overcome so she pulled her son from the program and placed him in the Boston Public School system instead.  When asked what Boston public schools were like today—whether or not they have improved since Brown v. Board­­—she somberly replied: “nothing has really changed since 1954.” 

I decided to investigate this claim further by interviewing the Academic Coordinator of a Harvard-affiliated non-profit tutoring program that works with public and private school students in Boston.[xxiv]  According to Nancy J., “there are definite disparities.”  Among the ones she listed were clear differences in math and writing skills.  Put simply, students in the program tend to have more developed mathematical and writing skills if they attend anything but a Boston public school (i.e. charter, private, or out-of-district public schools).  Unfortunately, Nancy expressed that even brighter students in Boston public schools didn’t fare well, as many of them are bored with the slow pace of their classes and end up falling behind students at higher performing schools.

Presently, desegregating schools in Massachusetts is no longer the attractive option it once was.  Because of forced integration efforts in the 1970s, many people were turned off by public schools in urban districts and—those who could afford to—fled elsewhere, leaving less well-off students behind.  As a result, Boston public schools have continued to suffer and integration efforts have largely failed.  Ultimately, the largest difference between the present and the past is that the political will to integrate schools is no longer there—people have seen what forced busing looks like and don’t want to travel down that road again.  As nice as voluntary programs like METCO can be, they are not sufficient.  If the goal is to provide children of all backgrounds with equal educational opportunities, desegregation through forced busing is not the answer.  The aggressiveness of this approach, coupled with the unwillingness of some parents to work toward the common goal of better education for all Webmail, is off-putting and is shown to lead to a greater divide and worse educational outcomes.  In the rest of our project, we explore the policy implications of the forced busing debacle, the contemporary politics surrounding the issue, and the contemporary politics of METCO.  We conclude with policy recommendations that we believe provide answers to some of the major shortcomings of desegregation efforts.



[i] Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)

[ii] Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited: From Topeka, Kansas to Boston, Massachusetts,” in Phylon (1960-), Vol. 37, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1976)  P. 347.

[iii] Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited,” p. 348.

[iv] Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited,” p. 348.

[v] Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited,” p. 349.

[vi] John A. Finger, Jr., “Why Busing Plans Work,” in The School Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, Is School Desegregation Still a Good Idea? (May, 1976), p. 364.

[viii] Joshua D. Angrist, and Kevin Lang, “Does School Integration Generate Peer Effects? Evidence from Boston’s METCO Program,” in The American Economic Review, Vol. 94, No. 5, American Economic Association: Dec., 2004), p. 1614.

[ix] William D. Boutwell, “Happenings in Education: Self-Imposed Educational Apartheid,” in The Parent Teacher Association Magazine, LXII (June, 1968), p. 15. This source is in: Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited,” in Phylon (1960)

[x] Details about the Boston Community Schools can be found in: Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985, Public Broadcasting Service’s American Experience (Produced by Blackside, 1987).

[xi] Leon Jones, “Brown Revisited,” p. 351.

[xii] Robert A. Dentler, “Desegregation Planning and Implementation in Boston,” in Theory and Practice, Vol. 17, No. 1, Desegregation: Plans and Possibilities (Feb., 1978) p. 73.

[xiii] Robert A. Dentler, “Desegregation Planning and Implementation in Boston,” p. 73; and Morgan v. Hennigan, 379 F. Supp. 410 (1974).

[xiv] Thomas W. Mahan, “The Busing of Students for Equal Opportunities,” in The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 37, No. 3, Race and Equality in American Education (Summer, 1968), p. 291.

[xv] John A. Finger, Jr., “Why Busing Plans Work,” p. 364.

[xvi] The details that follow are all from: Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement 1954-1985, Public Broadcasting Service’s American Experience (Produced by Blackside, 1987).

[xvii] Robert Jerome Glennon, “Review of Boston against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s,” by Ronald P. Formisano, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), p. 235

[xviii] Information about Boston’s Magnet Schools of the 1970s can be found in: Charles B. McMillan, “Magnet Education in Boston,” in The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Nov., 1977), pp. 158-163.

[xix] Joshua D. Angrist and Kevin Lang, “Does School Integration Generate Peer Effects? Evidence from Boston’s METCO Program,” p. 1616

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid, p. 1615.

[xxii] Ibid

[xxiii] Elicia R., Personal Interview, conducted November 16, 2009.

[xxiv] Nancy J., Personal Interview, conducted November 18, 2009.
















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