WESTWOOD - Metco, the state's voluntary 41-year-old program in which inner city minorities are bused to wealthier suburban school districts, should be able to pursue its original mission despite a recent Supreme Court decision that appeared to jeopardize school integration efforts across the country, a state Department of Education attorney said yesterday.
The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, according to her interpretation of the ruling, will not have to change its admissions practices and accept white students.
"We believe the Metco program is constitutional and could survive a constitutional challenge if it were brought," Rhoda Schneider, general counsel to the Massachusetts Department of Education, told a gathering of superintendents, School Committee members, and legislators at Westwood High School.
In a statement issued yesterday, Governor Deval Patrick also said he is confident that the program passes legal muster.
Schneider's presentation reassured educators and parents about Metco's future after months of uncertainty triggered by the Supreme Court decision that barred Seattle and Louisville, Ky., from using race in school assignments.
The court did not prohibit using race as an integration tool, leaving it open as a last resort.
But the court decision prompted some white parents and an Andover lawyer to press Metco over the summer to admit students by income instead of race, a change that Metco leaders and suburban superintendents feared would lead to the program's demise.
Changing the admissions criteria, Schneider said, "is an option, perhaps a political consideration, but we don't see it as necessary."
The state is prepared to defend Metco's existence and admissions practices, if challenged in court, because the program serves a "compelling state interest," Schneider said, given that Massachusetts suburbs remain racially isolated.
The program, she said, is clearly aimed at diversifying the suburbs and giving urban minority students better opportunities without resorting to a quota system - a method that the high court found problematic.
More than half of the 37 suburbs that are participating in Metco have populations that are more than 90 percent white, Metco officials said.
Metco helps "close the gap that exists because of real estate patterns in this Commonwealth," Schneider said, and benefits minority students coming from Boston and Springfield, as well as white students in the receiving communities.
The program allows urban and suburban students to better understand their peers from different backgrounds, she said.
Housing activists and educators launched Metco in 1966 to give black students in Boston access to a better education.
At the time, black students in segregated Boston schools faced overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, and substandard facilities, and they were sometimes mistreated by teachers and principals.
The program now enrolls about 3,300 students from Boston and Springfield; 15,000 students, including some who are white, remain on a waiting list for about 450 openings each year.
Metco refers only minority applicants to suburban school systems as seats open.
John C. Anderson, a Dorchester resident who is white and who tried signing up his son for Metco 20 years ago but was denied, said he is disappointed by the state's decision not to push Metco to admit white students.
"Why you would defend a program that discriminates on the basis of race is beyond me," Anderson said. "It's a travesty."
Jean McGuire, executive director of METCO Inc., said opening the program to poor white students would defeat the program's purpose of racial integration.
"The question I worried about was, were we going to lose funding and support from people who don't think it's worth having the program anymore?" McGuire said.
Superintendents of suburban school systems that receive Metco students are relieved the program does not have to be altered, and encouraged by the state's analysis of the Supreme Court decision's impact on their communities.
"The more I learn about the Supreme Court decision, the more confident I am that the Metco program is appropriate, is legal, and has a reasonable opportunity to continue in the future," said Michael F. Brandmeyer, Lincoln superintendent and chairman of the Metco Advisory Council.
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.