NO MATTER how successful the Metco program has been over its 45 years, it has often been regarded on Beacon Hill more like a social burden to be tolerated than an educational initiative to be supported fully. That’s partly because of its history: The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity initiative, which helps students of color from Boston and Springfield attend schools in surrounding communities, was born out of concerns about stark racial segregation between cities and their suburbs.
But even as some urban neighborhoods and suburban towns have become more diverse, racial disparities still exist. And parents and children on both ends of the bus route have a legitimate desire to see their children educated in environments that look more like the world the children will be entering.
Meanwhile, as public schools compete more aggressively among themselves and with charter schools, Metco offers a valuable opportunity for ambitious students from the lowest-performing districts to be educated in much higher-performing ones.
The program provides money to transport students and some other funds to offset the costs to the host district. The program currently serves 3,300 students, a number virtually unchanged for three decades. Its overall waiting list has fluctuated between 10,000 and 15,000 students since the mid-1990s. Children between kindergarten and second grade have the best chance at acceptance, and even in those classes there are 2,100 students applying for between 350 to 400 openings. Currently, 37 suburban districts host Metco students. Ten districts - led by Newton, Brookline, and Lexington - have at least 100 students.
Studies have long proven the educational benefits of Metco to the students it serves, including the new report by the Pioneer Institute and Harvard Law School’s Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. It found that 93 percent of Metco students graduated on time, compared with 81.5 percent of students statewide and 61 percent in Boston and Springfield. Earlier reports found that nine of 10 Metco graduates go on to higher education, compared to two-thirds of Boston Public Schools graduates.
But none of that has led to consistent funding. In the 1990s, Metco endured years of cuts and flat funding. More recently, it saw its funding rise during the early years of the Patrick administration, only to be felled back in the recession to 2006 levels. As a result, state Metco grants and transportation subsidies, which amount to $4,900 a student, are now a mere fraction of per-student costs that reach nearly $22,000-a-year in Lincoln. That makes it all the more impressive how suburban districts have stuck with Metco despite these chronic funding gaps.
No educational program is a panacea. Metco graduates are still less likely than suburban peers to go straight into four-year colleges. But after nearly a half-century of proving its worth, Metco deserves state funding that melts the effective freeze on 3,300 students. These are tight budgetary times. But in narrowing racial achievement gaps, Metco, at less than one-half of 1 percent of the state’s direct appropriations for K-12 education, offers one of the biggest bangs for the buck.