BOSTON (SHNS) – Hundreds of students and parents roamed the halls of the State House on Tuesday to ask state lawmakers to support increased funding for the largest school integration program in the country.
Advocates want to bump up the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity’s (METCO) line item amount in the fiscal year 2024 budget, despite Gov. Maura Healey’s recommendation to level-fund the program. Healey’s version of the budget also does not renew a one-year $500,000 earmark that METCO says it needs to implement a new racial equity system.
METCO is a “voluntary school desegregation” program, which sends 3,103 Boston area students to 33 districts in surrounding suburban communities known for their high-achieving public schools. Of Boston-area METCO participating students, 64 percent are Black, 26 percent are Hispanic and 3 percent are Asian.
“METCO was started 57 years ago, before many of us were even thought of, but we know that they were fighting for racial integration and discrimination was high,” METCO caucus co-chair Sen. Liz Miranda of Boston said to launch the program’s Beacon Hill lobbying day on Tuesday. “In 2023 those things still exist … We have huge housing and education segregation still in the city of Boston, where 85 percent of the student population is Black or brown. We know that kids need a chance; kids need a choice, and METCO gives them a choice.”
The state-funded program is asking legislators for $32.2 million in the fiscal 2024 budget — a $2.8 million increase over last year, which they say will help keep up with inflationary costs and expand the program.
With the requested 11.4 percent increase over this year’s appropriation, METCO says it could meet increased expenses associated with retaining staff and keeping up with increased bus and travel costs, and expand enrollment to six new partner schools, adding an additional 116 seats for Boston-area students.
Healey recommended a $28.9 million appropriation in fiscal 2023, compared to the $29.4 million METCO received in fiscal 2023.
Her budget recommendation does not renew one-year pilot funding that the program recieved last year to “target racial gaps within our network of 33 schools.” METCO staff say they used the funds to hire consultants to do network-wide assessment of racial equity and create a system of “best practices.”
If the state extends that one-time earmarked funding into next year, METCO CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas said the program could work toward implementing that blueprint, which would include equity audits and professional development in anti-racism, anti-bias and culturally responsive teaching.
Arbaje-Thomas said she was disappointed the governor’s budget didn’t include more dollars to implement the newly-developed practices.
“That was a bit disappointing because that $500,000 is funding we had just gotten last year specifically for racial equity work, which is the mission of the program,” said CEO Milly Arbaje-Thomas.
For the last few years, Arbaje-Thomas said, former Gov. Charlie Baker level-funded METCO and the Legislature bumped up the program’s appropriations in their version of the budget. She said she is hopeful that lawmakers would meet their $32.2 million request this year.
When first-year Rep. Chris Worrell took office two months ago, he became the only state representative who is an alumni of the METCO program. Though he grew up in Dorchester, Worrell graduated from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Boston’s suburbs.
He told advocates on Tuesday that the program is not only important for Boston-area students to get a better education, but that it also enriches communities with more diverse student populations.
As a teenager, when he encouraged his friend at Lincoln-Sudbury to run for school president, Worrell had no idea that they would both become politicians later in life, advocating for the program that brought them together. Worrell became a state representative, and his friend, Jared Nicholson — who won his race for class president — went on to win another election to become the mayor of Lynn.
“So when I say METCO works — METCO works,” Worrell said on Tuesday. “There are so many stories we have throughout METCO like that.”
In 2022, Boston Public Schools had a 76 percent graduation rate. METCO participants had a 95 percent graduation rate.