Each spring, supporters gather at the State House for the annual METCO advocacy day. As fine an example of local activism as that is, this year’s should be the last such event. The Metropolitan Council for Economic Opportunity has been a clear success; its funding should be incorporated into the state’s education formula, and the program expanded.
METCO, which was founded in 1966, allows about 3,200 mostly minority Boston and Springfield students to attend school in about three dozen suburban districts. The students outperform their Hispanic and African American peers in the sending districts, and their graduation rates exceed state averages.
In addition to benefitting METCO students, the program also pays dividends for the suburban districts whose schools the students attend. Though METCO students make up only about 2.5 percent of enrollment in receiving school districts, they account for 40 percent of African American enrollment in those districts. In some districts, it’s more than two-thirds.
Despite this record of success, METCO endured several years of budget cuts in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and recession, even as overall education funding rose.
Instead of forcing METCO to fight for a line item in the state budget each year, Massachusetts would better serve families by incorporating the program into the Commonwealth’s K-12 public education funding formula, known as Chapter 70. The formula adjusts for inflation each year and would improve transparency, thereby providing a clearer picture of the program’s impact on both sending and receiving school districts.
METCO’s performance also merits expansion, both within Boston and Springfield and to other cities. The Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities are an obvious target for expansion. School systems in about half of those 26 cities rank in the bottom 10 percent statewide.
Each year, suburban school districts decide how many METCO students to accept. Since those students take up excess capacity in these districts, marginal costs are low. As a result, a 2015 Pioneer Institute report found that the cost of expanding METCO would be just a tiny fraction of state K-12 public education funding. The move would bring much-needed diversity to more suburban districts and help thousands of low-income and minority families.
Expanding the program in Boston and Springfield would also address unmet demand. In Boston, there is a two-to-five-year wait to get into METCO. A quarter of the students on the waitlist there were signed up before they were a year old.
METCO students are more likely to have special needs than other Boston and Springfield students. Increased funding would cover their special education-related costs.
More money would also fund late afternoon buses, allowing METCO students to participate in extracurricular activities at their suburban schools. Today, too many students in the program face grueling schedules, due to commutes to and from school that can take hours. Many have to get up before dawn. When they finally arrive home, often exhausted, they face substantial homework and studying before they can finally get some sleep, only to repeat the same schedule the following day.
At a time when overall student performance in Massachusetts is declining, and achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their white, more affluent counterparts are growing, METCO is a win-win. It provides academic benefits for its students and makes suburban school districts more diverse. And all this can be achieved for only a very small increase in state public education funding.
Jim Stergios is the executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.