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BEDFORD, Mass.—When Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote for a unanimous Supreme Court in 1954 that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” America took the first step towards desegregating its public schools. That process, which the court ordered to take place with “all deliberate speed,” was agonizingly slow; a decade later, less than 1 percent of black students in the Deep South attended integrated schools.
It is not surprising that integrating America’s schools has been such a difficult task. Aside from the vehement emotions that have always accompanied segregation, the practice of assigning schools based on geographic location means that for schools to become fully integrated, cities and suburbs must first become completely multiracial. Conditions have greatly improved in the years since 1954, but demographic trends threaten to keep America’s public schools largely segregated in fact if not in law. Suburban schools supported by plentiful property taxes remain predominantly white, while schools in inner cities heavily populated by minorities are often overcrowded and underfunded.
Three months ago, in a little-noted decision, the Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court ruling ending court-ordered desegregation in Charlotte, N.C. Though the number of blacks attending majority-black schools increased by 50 percent from 1993-1999 (and 200 percent at the high school level), the appeals court ruled that “massive demographic shifts,” rather than the intentional action of school officials, was the cause of any remaining segregation in Charlotte’s schools. The black plaintiffs argued, to no avail, that district officials knew of practical steps they could take to eliminate the disparities.
Realizing that school integration will not happen on its own, some have tried to artificially speed the process to benefit both urban and suburban students. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (Metco) buses approximately 3,300 minority students from Boston and Springfield into the mostly-white suburbs surrounding the city. Begun in 1966, Metco now has a waiting list of 15,000 students, many of whom were placed on the list by their parents soon after they were born in order to reserve a spot.
The massive waiting list notwithstanding, Metco almost suffered a devastating budget cut this year. The Ways and Means Committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives planned to slash the program’s funds by 40 percent, which would have put both urban and suburban school districts between a rock and a hard place. Suburban schools would have faced the choice of sending hundreds of Metco students back to Boston this fall—away from their classmates and teachers—or covering the students’ expenses completely out of their own pocket. Boston and Springfield would have struggled to find classroom space for students who were forced to return to the city. Fortunately, the Massachusetts House and Senate reached a compromise to continue level-funding Metco for at least next year—but the program is still millions of dollars short of being able to serve all the students who wish to participate.
Even with the restored funding, there have been worries that Metco’s cost to suburban school districts might erode its support. Schools receive only $2,880 per Metco student, whereas the average per-pupil expenditure in Massachusetts is over $7,000. But on the contrary, while suburban participation has remained steady overall, the town of Bedford is significantly increasing its Metco enrollment for the coming year, from 46 to approximately 70 students.
Bedford school committee members stress the benefits that Metco brings to both the students who come from Boston and those who live in Bedford. “We’re getting the benefits of the children from Boston sharing their culture with us, and we get to share some benefits they might not normally have in Boston,” says Linda Vanaria, a member of Bedford’s school committee.
While those in Metco get to learn in better schools, suburban students are exposed to a slice of the real world’s diversity. “Here we are in this very lily-white community, and our kids are very sheltered and very protected. When we have the opportunity to have our children learn from and understand and meet and befriend kids from different backgrounds and different cultures, our kids are so enriched,” says Ellen Waldron, also a member of the school committee. “Metco is the ultimate anti-racist initiative, the ultimate desegregation movement.”
Of course, programs like Metco cannot solve America’s racial issues by themselves. “Metco is no panacea,” Waldron says. The program has several problems of its own, including the tendency of students on both sides to self-segregate. But exposing students to a diverse environment at a young age can only foster education and understanding in the long run—having nine black students sitting together at a table in a sea of white bodies is better than having none at all. And in fact, Bedford’s decision to boost enrollment is an attempt to ensure that minority students are not isolated; according to Vanaria, due to the increase at least five Metco students will be in each grade this year.
Programs like Metco may be expensive, but they must be reinforced and expanded if there is any chance to finish the noble project of desegregating America’s public schools in the foreseeable future. Race relations in America have improved immeasurably in the years since Brown v. Board of Education, but tension still remains. There is no better formula for peace and cooperation between different groups of people than integrated schooling from an early age; a quick glance at societies riven by internal strife provides ample evidence. In Northern Ireland, only 4 percent of students are educated in integrated Catholic-Protestant schools. In Israel, the education system for Israeli Arabs is separate-but-unequal (though to be fair, most Arabs prefer the current arrangement to integrated schooling).
Unlike Northern Ireland and Israel, America is no longer suffering from widespread violence because of the progress that has been made in equalizing and integrating education over the last 50 years. If that trend is to continue, then programs like Metco must be expanded, not stifled. As Justice William J. Brennan wrote of another recalcitrant school district 14 years after Brown, “the transition to a unitary, nonracial system of public education was and is the ultimate end to be brought about.”
David M. DeBartolo ’03, a government concentrator in Lowell House, is editorial chair of The Crimson. He is again enjoying home-cooked meals and rooting for the Red Sox.
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