The Utter Inadequacy of America’s Efforts to Desegregate Schools
In 1966, a group of Boston-area parents and administrators created a busing program called METCO to help desegregate schools. They thought of it as a quick fix to a passing problem. But the problem hasn’t passed, and METCO isn’t enough to fix it.
My best friend in kindergarten, Eddie Linton, did not live in one of the spacious houses on the hill in the Boston suburb where I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, Belmont, which is best known for its stellar schools and abundance of Harvard professors. Eddie, who is black, lived instead in a brownstone in the South End of Boston, alongside his two American-born sisters, plus grandparents and aunts and godparents from Barbados, the country where his parents were born.
Every morning, Eddie would get up at 6 a.m. and get on a yellow school bus that took him and dozens of other black kids from Boston to Belmont. He’d spend his school day in Belmont, surrounded by kids who did live in those spacious mansions, and then, at the end of the day, he’d get on the bus and go home. “It was a long day, but my parents wanted me to have exposure to a better education system,” he told me recently. While he was gazing out the bus window, watching the scenery change from suburban to urban, wealthy to middle- and low-income, thousands of other black kids across Boston were sitting on similar buses that took them to and from schools in other predominantly white suburbs, such as Newton, Sharon, and Wellesley, areas that white families had embraced to escape the city in the 1960s and 1970s.
Eddie was a participant in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, one of the longest-running voluntary school-integration programs in the country. Started in 1966, METCO has bused thousands of students in Massachusetts—at least 200 in the first decade to 3,000 since the 1970s—from predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in the city of Boston and later Springfield to white, wealthy neighborhoods in the suburbs.
The original idea behind the program was to help black kids access better educational opportunities than those available in Boston, and to give white students in suburbia the opportunity to “share a learning experience with students with differing social, economic, and racial backgrounds,” as program backers put it at the time. Its founders assumed that it wouldn’t be necessary for long—soon, they hoped, housing segregation would dissipate and schools would be places where black and white students were educated alongside one another, without any busing necessary.
I don’t know why Eddie and I became such fast friends. Perhaps I recognized in Eddie, with his wiry frame, oversize glasses, and ears that stuck out a little, a fellow nerd like me. Teachers said we were inseparable and joked that we would someday get married. I remember venturing into Boston to see the rerelease of E.T. in a theater with his family, but the movie proved so terrifying to me that I demanded we leave, and his mother had to wait with me outside the theater until the movie ended.
I spent time in his Boston home, too, though I don’t remember much aside from a linoleum kitchen floor and the smells of home-cooked food. Eddie says my father wrapped a multicolored afghan around him one winter evening on our couch, and he remembers feeling warmed by the evidence that someone who looked different from him cared about him.
Today, Eddie lives in France, where he’s married to a French woman and works as an account manager for a French airline. Eddie’s experiences with “code-switching” as a kid—moving back and forth between his Barbadian family and neighborhood friends in Boston and the WASPy suburb of Belmont—prepared him for a life and career in which he needs to easily transition among languages and cultures, he told me. Going to school in Belmont, where kids would casually talk about skiing in the Rockies over winter break or traveling to Europe for the summer with their family, piqued his interest in travel.
His parents already expected him to go to college, but being surrounded by kids in Belmont, where college was a given for just about everyone, made that path seem readily accessible. “I was exposed to a lifestyle that altered my perspective of how things should be,” he told me. Many kids who grew up in his Boston neighborhood didn’t go to college; among other reasons, they saw it as an expensive way to delay making a living.
METCO is a source of pride for many in Boston, a city known for its violent opposition to mandatory school busing in the 1970s. Famous alumni of the program include Marilyn Mosby, the top prosecutor in Baltimore, and Audie Cornish, the co-host of All Things Considered on NPR. Many METCO kids excel in the well-funded suburban schools: About 98 percent of METCO kids graduate from high school, compared with somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of students who attend schools in Boston, and nine in 10 say they plan to go on to higher education, compared with 59 percent in Boston, according to state data.
METCO is especially important today, as the political appetite for integration—never great—seems to be waning. The Trump administration discontinued a $12 million Obama-era grant to help local school districts boost diversity, and is scaling back federal efforts to enforce fair-housing laws. It is throwing support behind charter schools, which teachers’ unions have argued are a way to undermine integration. Trump’s rhetoric has licensed public displays of racism, and the past year has surfaced politicians trying to suppress the black vote in Georgia, showing up in yearbook photos in blackface and Ku Klux Klan hoods, and warning that their black opponents would “monkey it up” if elected. Black Americans still face discrimination when applying for jobs, buying homes, and seeking medical care.
Massachusetts could be an example, a state pushing back against integration’s demise; it was, after all, where the first law prohibiting segregated schools was passed, in 1855. When METCO was established, suburban districts volunteered seats in their under-enrolled schools; in 1964, white families in Boston participated in a “Freedom Stay-Out,” boycotting segregated schools and speaking publicly about the need for integration. White residents living in wealthy suburbs wrote letters to the mayor of Boston asking the city to end “de facto segregation” of schools and spend more money on inner-city schools.
“Educational leaders in suburban communities both wanted to do something that would benefit black kids in urban neighborhoods, but also, they understood that going to an all-white school was not providing a good education to students,” says Susan Eaton, a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and the author of The Other Boston Busing Story, about METCO. This wasn’t just a Massachusetts phenomenon: In New York, “white liberals” picketed in support of school integration in Brooklyn in 1964.
Of course, Massachusetts also had its own significant racial problems, which often manifested around questions of school policy. In 1974, the Boston School Committee was found to have taken actions that intentionally segregated schools in the area. Violent opposition to the court-ordered school desegregation that followed earned Boston the reputation as one of the most racist cities in the country, a reputation that has not died. Racism was most prominent in the city, but it existed in the suburbs, too; letters to local newspapers about METCO in the program’s initial decades indicate that readers were worried about the “raping” of their school districts, city children bringing “inner-city diseases,” and their money being spent on other people’s kids.
It may not be surprising, then, that Massachusetts has turned into another example of a place that once seemed poised to integrate and is now just as segregated as it was decades ago. The housing integration that METCO’s founders thought would soon make the program unnecessary has not come to pass. White, affluent families in Boston self-segregate in wealthy suburbs, and then thwart attempts to build affordable housing developments nearby, despite state laws designed to prevent them from doing so. The median price of a single-family home in Belmont in 2016 was more than $1 million, nearly double the price of a home in Boston. Middlesex County, where some of the Boston area’s wealthiest suburbs are located, is 78 percent white and 5 percent black, according to census data, while Suffolk County, which includes the city of Boston, is 56 percent white and 21 percent black.
In fact, rather than fading away, school segregation has become more intense in recent years, in part because of this residential segregation. About 76 percent of the 54,000 students enrolled in the Boston public-school system are black or Latino.
Segregation is growing within the school district, too, according to a Boston Globe analysis published last year. Sixty percent of Boston public schools are “intensely segregated,” up from 42 percent two decades ago, the analysis found. Students of color fill at least 90 percent of the seats in almost two-thirds of all schools, meaning the white students who do attend Boston public schools are concentrated into just a few places.
By contrast, METCO’s receiving districts are still extremely white. Just 3 percent of students enrolled in Belmont public schools are black, while 85 percent are white or Asian. Public schools in Lexington, Concord, and Wellesley are each about 4 percent black, and Newton is 4.7 percent black, according to state data. (These numbers include METCO students.)
Rather than trying to address this segregation head-on, though, Massachusetts, like many other states, has instead allowed it to persist. METCO is one of the only existing efforts to desegregate Massachusetts schools, and it is simply not up to the task, having stayed exactly the same size even as the suburban school districts that accept METCO students have grown in population. Belmont has 32 percent more students than it did in the 1997–1998 school year, and Lexington, another predominantly white suburb, has 30 percent more students. These numbers are typical of most METCO receiving districts. But there are still exactly the same number of METCO students as there were when the districts were much smaller.
This means that the ratio of METCO students to non-METCO students has fallen. Students get into METCO only if there are seats available, and they’re accepted in the order in which they sign up for the program; parents put their children on the wait list when they are born to get a better shot at admission. (METCO recently proposed a new admissions process, replacing the first-come, first-served system with a lottery, causing deep anxiety for parents who had signed their children up years ago.) The current wait list has 8,000 students on it.
Part of the problem is financial: Funding for the program has stagnated, while the costs of running it have risen. METCO is actually receiving less money from the state than it did in 2007 and 2008. The budget for the 2019 fiscal year provided METCO with 2 percent more funding than it had in 2009, but that equates to less money if you account for inflation. Every year, METCO advocates go to the Massachusetts statehouse and ask for more money for the program. It’s always a challenge, Jay Kaufman, a recently retired Massachusetts state representative from Lexington, who was the head of the Joint Committee on Revenue, told me. Kaufman, who has long been one of METCO’s biggest supporters, has calculated that the program has the same funding level as it did 24 years ago when he was first elected. “It’s kind of sobering to realize that for all the fighting and all the victories, we’re just treading water,” he said.
Much of the problem has to do with the way public schools in America are organized, which is to say largely by geography. As a result, because America’s housing is so racially segregated, so are its schools. There’s little enthusiasm among politicians or voters to overhaul that system.
Cities that have tried to upend it have found little success: The Supreme Court has, in recent years, limited the degree to which public schools can seek to increase racial integration through vouchers or transfers. Places such as the larger Louisville metropolitan area, which tried to preserve a commitment to regional school integration, have faced constant court challenges.
“The resegregation of education is a nationwide phenomenon, because of where people can afford to live and the connection between income and race,” says Lisa Guisbond, the executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Massachusetts education-advocacy group. Boston is one of the few places in the country that still has a voluntary busing program; many other districts have phased out such efforts. METCO and programs like it are among the few tools left to desegregate schools in America—and they aren’t doing nearly enough.
METCO officially began in September of 1966, when 220 black students took buses from Boston to classrooms in seven suburban school districts, including Brookline, Lexington, Newton, and Wellesley. As the buses wended through the suburbs, the students gawked at the green grass and manicured trees, according to A History of METCO, a pamphlet by Ruth Batson and Robert Hayden, two of the program’s early leaders.
The program was created as a work-around. The Massachusetts legislature had passed a law in 1965 that made the segregation of public schools illegal, but the Boston School Committee, the governing body of Boston’s public schools, consistently refused to integrate schools, so the state began allowing students living in highly segregated districts to attend schools outside the districts where they lived. Parents were told that METCO would probably go on for three years or so, until Boston schools had straightened out their integration attempts, according to Batson and Hayden.
From the beginning, it was the state, not the receiving districts, that put up much of the money for the program. A bill passed in 1966 mandated that the state provide financial assistance to any town adopting a plan to address racial imbalance in schools, according to Eaton, the Brandeis professor. The program succeeded, at first, because “it was relatively small, districts got money along with the students, and [the receiving students] didn’t really have to have any significant financial or personal hardship,” Matthew Delmont, a history professor at Arizona State University and the author of Why Busing Failed: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, told me.
Today, many districts still don’t have to put up much extra money to bring METCO to their schools. In some districts, the presence of METCO students brings in more money from the state than is spent on the program, according to Roger Hatch, who recently retired after working as the administrator of school finance for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
On average, the state provides a $4,147-per-student stipend to the receiving district. Districts spend anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per pupil on education, but METCO brings in other money too. Some districts receive about $12,000 per student in aid through Chapter 70, a Massachusetts program that seeks to remedy discrepancies between rich and poor districts, Hatch told me. This can mean that the presence of METCO students brings in more money than the district spends on those students. “You could say they’re more than breaking even on the program,” Hatch said.
(Some districts do spend more on METCO from their own budgets than they receive from the state. It can be hard to figure out which ones take in more than they spend. Belmont, for instance, received $9 million in Chapter 70 aid for 2019; its total school budget was about $69 million. When I asked the Belmont school district whether it spent town money on METCO, the superintendent’s office told me that the METCO program is totally funded by the state, and that no part of the town’s general-fund budget goes to the program.)
Some of the funding originally given to districts that accepted METCO students has been phased out over the years. Funding from the state that used to be distributed to districts with state-approved racial-balance plans was eliminated in 2001, according to Eaton. The state also used to pay for 90 percent of the cost of building or expanding schools (as opposed to the 75 percent it usually provides) if that construction was for the purpose of reducing racial imbalance.
Today, the committee that once gave out those incentives appears to have different priorities in mind, according to Eaton: Recent incentives have been available for districts trying to improve energy efficiency, but not for integration efforts. Districts have to rely more on taxpayers for new construction; last year, Belmont voters were asked to approve a ballot initiative that raised real-estate taxes in order to fund the construction of a new high school. The Foundation for Belmont Education raises hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for the Belmont Public School system; it has given about $225,000 a year over the past decade to pay for books, professional development, and enrichment programs, among other things, Chris Kochem, the foundation administrator, told me.
Sometimes METCO has become a scapegoat for taxpayers balking at new taxes. “It is pathetic that state law forbids Belmont property owners from having any say whatsoever as to the propriety of paying to educate young people who do not live in Belmont and who spend hours every day just getting here,” one Belmont resident, Tony Oberdorfer, wrote in a 2013 letter to the Belmont Citizen-Herald as the town considered raising taxes to build new schools.
Over time, as the amount of state money going to address racial imbalance has shrunk, METCO has had a hard time getting more funding for the program. “Everybody loves the program, they think it’s needed, they think it’s doing great things, they think it should be expanded,” METCO’s chief executive, Milly Arbaje-Thomas, told me. “But they’re not willing to give up their [anti-] substance-abuse money or whatever thing they’re fighting for that they really care about.”
Massachusetts schools are already underfunded by about $1 billion, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, and the state hasn’t been able to figure out a way to bring in more cash. It has a flat income tax, and five previous efforts to get voters to amend the state constitution and change this have failed. The flat income tax hamstrings liberal legislators who want to raise taxes on the rich, since raising taxes on the rich will also raise them on poor and middle-income people. Kaufman, the former legislator, had advocated for a “millionaires’ tax” that would have levied an additional 4 percent tax on annual income earners of more than $1 million, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court barred the proposal from the November ballot.
Asking districts to put up their own money, or to open up a lot more seats for METCO students, is probably a nonstarter. When a town faces a tight budget, the METCO program is often one of the first things on the chopping block. Residents assume that since METCO adds additional students to classrooms, it costs them money, not realizing that their town gets state money for participating in the program, according to Jamie Gass, an education expert at the Pioneer Institute, a free-market think tank.
Asking towns to pay to educate the kids of people who live elsewhere has not proved popular in the past. When in 1993 the then-president of the Massachusetts state Senate, William M. Bulger, pushed a school-choice plan that would have allowed students in Boston to attend any public school anywhere in the state, Belmont and other towns objected to the idea, arguing that it would take money away from city public schools, since funding would have followed the students. Asking suburban parents to pay even higher taxes so that more students from elsewhere can attend already overcrowded schools would be a tough sell. “To actually produce more integrated outcomes would require a different reallocation of resources—it would require people to give up something among white families, which is always a difficult proposition,” Delmont told me. “Communities haven’t indicated they’re willing to pay up with local money to expand the program.”
As METCO funding has remained more or less stagnant, new obstacles have emerged for students who participate in the state’s biggest attempt at integration. Districts choose how to spend their METCO money, and, in the face of growing enrollments and limited funding, many are cutting the services that made life easier for METCO kids.
Belmont, for instance, used to have a bus that took students home from the high school; now kids have to take public transportation, which for many of them means two buses and two subway rides each way, each trip sometimes taking as long as two hours. Some districts have reduced the number of late buses, which enable METCO students to play sports or participate in school plays or other arts activities—in one district, a boy had to leave a basketball game halfway through because the last METCO bus was leaving, Claire Jones, the METCO director for Sharon, another suburb, told me. Because districts decide whether or not they have seats available, students will sometimes be told they’ve been admitted to the program and will go on a tour of the new school district, only to be told that the school has decided space wasn’t available after all, Colin Stokes, a METCO spokesperson, told me. “We tell people not to count on METCO until you’ve gotten on the bus,” he said.
As the suburban districts have grown in number of pupils, they are struggling to fit their current students in outdated school buildings, and can’t take on as many outside kids. The crowded state of many suburban schools is a contrast to the early days of METCO, in which those schools were under-enrolled. Today, METCO students make up 2 percent of the Belmont school district’s student body, down from about 3.5 percent in 1997. Some districts, including Belmont, don’t accept METCO students in some early grades if the classrooms are too full. According to a Belmont-district spokesperson, in 2017, because classrooms were so crowded, the district’s first-grade classes only had one METCO student. The district’s ninth-grade classes, by contrast, had 11 METCO students, many of whom had just entered the program.
That means many METCO students in Belmont and elsewhere start attending a white, suburban school in middle or high school, when kids already have hard-and-fast cliques. “My freshman year was very, very hard,” Lisbeth Quintin, a student from Dorchester who started attending Belmont High School through METCO her freshman year and who graduated in June, told me. She’d go home and cry because the academics were so challenging—she had to drop two honors classes—and she found the commute, two hours each way, grueling, she said. Eddie’s experience was different. He told me that when his mother first put him on the big yellow school bus as a kindergartener, he was confused, but didn’t know anything different, and so he soon came to accept it. “I think we became accustomed to doing it at such a young age [and] it just became standard,” he said.
That said, being a METCO participant has never been easy. Anthony Lumley, who is now 54, started attending Belmont public schools through METCO in 1970. When Lumley’s bus pulled up to the high school on the first day, carrying the first class of METCO kids to attend Belmont High, someone had spray-painted “Niggers Go Home” on the pavement. The school’s senior-class president got wind of this and came out to the bus and apologized, but it still shook the students.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was in school and the program’s funding was more secure, METCO students nevertheless felt that their position was precarious. Eddie was probably one of the best-behaved kids in the school district. Still, his parents worried that any deviation from his perfect record would have big consequences. “It would be, ‘Let’s make sure you’re not the reason that Belmont stops accepting METCO students,’” he told me.
METCO students in Belmont knew that even a little misbehavior would get them in a huge amount of trouble with METCO staff. Riding the bus as a little kid, “you were almost scared to breathe,” Eddie told me, because kids were so afraid that someone would act up and get the whole bus into trouble. If a student was sent to the principal’s office during school, the METCO bus, before leaving Belmont, would receive a visit from Thelma Burns, then the METCO coordinator for Belmont, whom students described as a mother, a grandmother, a guidance counselor, and a principal all rolled into one. The bus driver would turn off the bus’s motor, and the bus would turn silent with trepidation as students waited for Burns to climb onto the bus and give students a verbal lashing, Eddie and other students told me.
There were other ways students were made to feel like outsiders. Eddie remembers that kids assumed he only had a mom, not a dad, presumably because he was black. Teachers thought he had a speech impediment because of his Barbadian accent, and sent him to a counselor. Kids wanted to play with his hair and told him it looked like a sponge. When he got older and entered high school, Eddie remembers the strangeness of seeing what seemed like every student in Belmont getting a driver’s license—and, in many cases, a car—when they turned 16, while he and other kids from METCO still relied on public transportation.
“Having cars was absolutely not possible for us,” he said, of his family and other METCO students. Parties or social events often happened on the weekends, and he’d have to figure out a way to get back into the suburbs if he wanted to attend. His parents moved to another suburb when Eddie was 10, and though METCO made an exception and allowed him and his sisters to stay in the program, the move meant even longer commutes.
Eddie’s feelings of discomfort were typical of many METCO students sent to the wealthy Boston suburbs. Ramon Hamilton, who attended Belmont schools through METCO from the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, told me that he experienced culture shock going from his family’s two-bedroom apartment to friends’ houses in Belmont, where small families would live in a home with five bedrooms, a finished basement, and an attic. “It seemed normal that if you were white, that’s how you lived,” Hamilton, whose mother was a Boston public-school teacher, told me. “My thing was always, ‘Damn, it sucks not to be white.’”
This feeling intensified in high school, he told me, when there were a few incidents of kids being called racial slurs in the locker room or during gym class. This continues today, Quintin and other students told me. There are only a few teachers of color in Belmont, she said, which makes METCO students feel even more isolated.
Black students have felt like interlopers in areas beyond Belmont. In 2003, a black boy who lived in the suburb of Wellesley and was not part of the METCO program was loaded onto a METCO bus at the end of the day and sent to Dorchester. In 1999, the superintendent of schools in the suburb of Lynnfield proposed eliminating METCO because he said METCO students were bringing down the district’s average grades. He pointed out that some of the METCO students were getting low grades, but the district’s METCO counselor argued that this was because the students were made to feel unwelcome and teachers set low expectations for them. After significant pushback from students, the district decided to keep the program. Every few years in Belmont and in other districts, black students are called racist slurs, or those slurs are scrawled on school buildings, or some sort of other racist incident happens, and METCO students feel unwelcome once again.
Burns, the former METCO coordinator for Belmont, told me that making METCO work always took a lot of effort. She remembers the years she spent convincing parents on both sides of the benefits of integration: hosting family dinners and picnics to involve both white and black parents; assuring white parents that it was safe to let their kids visit METCO students in Boston. The value of her work was clear then, she said—she remembers the first time she took students to Burbank, one of the elementary schools in Belmont, and they were so happy to see so much grass that they rolled around in it, luxuriating in the greenery.
She told me she was disappointed that Belmont now accepts fewer METCO students in the elementary-school years, a factor that must make it more difficult for students, she said. She wonders whether parents—both black and white—are less interested in integration. “You really have to have the support of the students, the teachers, the parents,” she told me. “I think parents just aren’t as engaged.”
Of course, that METCO exists, and that so many districts are still committed to it after 50 years, suggests that many Massachusetts residents are dedicated to continuing to integrate schools. Many in Belmont believe “that your zip code shouldn’t determine the quality of your education, and this is one small part to that,” Janice Darias, Belmont’s assistant superintendent, told me. A group of residents, called Belmont Against Racism, holds an annual breakfast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to raise funds; the money pays for programs that support METCO students, such as taxis if they need to stay late for extracurricular activities. Families volunteer to be “host families” for METCO students, serving as a home away from home for students who might sometimes need a place to hang out after school, and who feel more welcomed if they know people who live in town.
METCO has its flaws, but the fact remains that even 60 years after the civil-rights movement, parents of color in Boston know that one of the best ways to guarantee that their kids get a good education is to hope they get into the program so they can attend a white school in the suburbs. “If they have to get up at 5 a.m., and that’s what it takes to be in a school system that has adequate funding and resources, and a better chance at quality educational opportunities, that’s what people are willing to do,” Guisbond, of Citizens for Public Schools, says.
METCO students see the contrast between their neighbors in Boston and their peers in Belmont every day. Both Eddie Linton and Lisbeth Quintin told me that many of their neighbors and friends who attended Boston public schools did not attend college.
Daniel Kelso Irvin, who graduated from Belmont’s public high school the year after I did, left METCO his junior year of high school after attending schools in Belmont since first grade, because he was sick of the commute. His first day at Boston High, a public school that no longer exists, he saw a fight, a drug transaction, and a student in school with a gun, he told me. The academics were nowhere close to Belmont’s—the stuff Boston High students were doing in 11th or 12th grade, he had done in eighth or ninth, he said. He missed Belmont, so he’d take the bus back and hang out with his friends there after school. “It was really just culture shock for me,” he said about switching to Boston High.
Boston’s schools continue to struggle today. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh recently went to the state legislature asking for millions of dollars for the city’s public schools, because they are dilapidated and lack funding for guidance counselors and nurses. An education-reform act in 1993 opened the door for charter schools in the state, and now much of the money that once went to public schools is being diverted to charter schools. $167 million of the $220 million the city received in state aid is going to charter-school tuition, according to The Boston Globe. Boston’s revered exam schools, the prestigious public schools that require students to test in, can only accommodate a fraction of the city’s students; the large majority of exam-school students are white and Asian.
The lesson, for many METCO students like Eddie, is plain: Staying near home offers fewer possibilities than going to a district like Belmont. Eddie, who played violin in the school orchestra and bass drum in the marching band, remembers complaining to his mother about the long commute, the code-switching, and the grueling hours of his school day. His mother got very serious, he told me. “She said, ‘Listen, if you want to be able to excel, and have a guaranteed place in this society, you have to keep doing it,’” he told me. “It’s kind of brutal if you think about it now.”
Of course, the METCO students aren’t the only ones whose lives are shaped by the program. My classmates and I benefited tremendously from sitting next to METCO kids during the school day, and from befriending kids who weren’t all white and upper-middle-class.
The psychology professors Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp say that interacting with those different from oneself can make a person less prejudiced, a benefit they call “intergroup contact theory.” Pettigrew and Tropp have found that children who grow up in multiracial surroundings tend to be less anxious about racial differences, more empathetic and caring about others, and more likely to get involved in social change. They also express more interest in living in more ethnically diverse environments when they become adults. METCO didn’t make Belmont multiracial, exactly, but it was a step toward helping kids like me better understand the diversity of the world around them.
But unlike METCO students, who had to make significant sacrifices to come to Belmont, I had to forgo nothing at all. To be surrounded by all these different kids, to get the great education of a stellar school system, I would walk five minutes to middle school, past centuries-old houses with manicured gardens, or drive my beat-up Toyota Tercel down a big hill to the high school, which had a pond out front. I rarely thought about what Eddie and other students had to go through so that I could meet people different from me. I was so accustomed to METCO that for most of my time in school, I assumed it was a program that happened in every town in America.
METCO’s new executive director hopes that this idea—that students in receiving districts are benefiting from METCO, too—will convince more districts to join the program, and encourage the existing ones to expand. Arbaje-Thomas, who had previously managed anti-poverty programs in Boston, was appointed as the new METCO chief executive in January of last year, replacing Jean McGuire, who had run the program since 1973. She told me that she wants to start talking about METCO not just as a program that benefits the black students who are bused in, but as one that also benefits the white students who have more exposure to diversity than they would otherwise. No new districts have joined METCO since the mid-1970s, but she told me she’s eager to get more on board.
Arbaje-Thomas wants to talk about how METCO makes suburban students “global citizens” who benefit from being around different cultures and life experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t access in their sheltered suburban life. After all, she said, colleges pay for diversity by hiring staff to oversee diversity initiatives. Places of employment and private schools go out of their way to ensure diversity. “Nobody should be getting diversity for free anyway,” she told me. Parents sometimes tell her that they want their children to be prepared for the corporate world, and that means they need to know how to interact with people of all different races. She wants to frame METCO to districts like this: “We’re bringing you diversity, richness, an urban experience, an urban relationship that you wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said.
I see her point: Towns need to be convinced that METCO is so good for their students that they’ll go out of their way to ensure the program continues. But it’s nevertheless striking that the way to sell an integration program to white parents today is all about what they’re getting, not the greater social good. (In fact, during my correspondence with Darias, Belmont’s assistant superintendent, about the costs of the program, she wrote to me, “I hope you’re not trying to say in your article that METCO costs the town money, because I don’t think it does, and I think there is great value in having a diverse student population if we have as a goal raising racially aware students.”)
In November, voters in Belmont approved a “debt exclusion” that will allow the town to increase taxes by almost $2,000 per household by 2025. This will pay for the construction of a $295 million school to house kids in grades seven through 12, eventually accommodating about 900 more students. (The district currently has one middle school and one high school.) Though the measure was controversial, 76 percent of voters supported it. (My mother volunteered for the campaign to pass it.) It will allow the town to build a school for its growing population—and if it wanted, Belmont could also fit more kids from METCO.
But METCO and integration more generally were not mentioned in the run-up to the debt exclusion. The focus is, and will always be, creating more space for kids from Belmont. That’s why people move to the suburbs, after all, paying millions of dollars for houses that are expensive to heat and have long driveways to shovel in winter so they can get into one of the best school districts in Massachusetts.