Some regions, such as the area around Hartford, Connecticut, have pursued integration by allowing suburban students to enroll at urban magnets, and then busing city kids to the open seats at suburban schools. While Boston's METCO program currently allows 3,300 minority children to attend suburban schools, the busing goes only one way, from the city to the suburbs, which limits the program's scope and places the burden of busing entirely on urban kids. Still, there are 10,000 students on METCO's waiting list, proving that many parents and kids are absolutely willing to endure busing if the outcome is a better education.
The challenge is the political heavy lifting needed to expand cooperation between cities and suburbs. It took METCO over 40 years to grow from seven cooperating suburban districts to 37; supplementing the program with urban magnet schools and two-way busing would be more expensive, and would likely require either state-level intervention or a painstaking process of regional coalition building — one the Menino administration seems unlikely to pursue.
In 2009, Susan Eaton of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School led several Boston Public Schools administrators on a tour of Hartford's integrated magnet schools. While the officials were impressed by what they saw, Hartford-style urban-suburban cooperation "has not been discussed as a viable solution, nor is it something that is taken seriously among elected leaders," Eaton says.
Dorothy Joyce, a Menino spokesperson, says the city is choosing to focus on giving more students access to high-quality K-8 schools near their home in part because parents of the youngest children often report feeling nervous about busing. The result, she says, will be "stronger communities."
On the web, the city has published several rezoning proposals more integrationist than its own.One, by researchers at MIT, would use a complex computer algorithm to guarantee that every Boston child has the same probability of being assigned to a high-quality school, regardless of race, class, or geographical location. Another is by Josh Weiss, the South End dad who chose to enroll his own daughters in a high-poverty — yet ultimately high-performing — public school. His plan would "pair" two neighborhood zones with one another, meaning that even if kids are bused to school, they will travel alongside their neighbors, helping to achieve some of the community cohesion Menino champions.
Most observers expect the city to select one of its own five reorganization models — the plans experts predict will lead to deeper segregation by race and class. Rahsaan Hall of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is part of a coalition of organizations urging the city to halt the process and refocus on providing poor and nonwhite children with equal access to seats at high-quality schools. Hall notes that the city's rezoning plans project to cut only about $4 million from Boston's $60 million to $80 million annual busing budget, meaning that even from a financial perspective, these proposals aren't ideal.
"My hope," Hall says, "is that there is enough of a groundswell of parental and community interest to put pressure on the school committee, superintendent, and ultimately the mayor to put the brakes on."
Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. All posts »
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