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Children in the Project JumpStart summer program for Metco students from Boston played at the Codman Pool in Lincoln yesterday.
Children in the Project JumpStart summer program for Metco students from Boston played at the Codman Pool in Lincoln yesterday. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)

Metco fears for its future

Ruling may put desegregation effort at risk

Leaders of a 41-year-old state program created to integrate suburban schools with urban minority students are facing the possibility that they may have to allow white participants in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling last month.

Program leaders and others fear that including white students from the cities in the voluntary desegregation program, known as Metco, could lead to the program's demise. Admit white students, suburban superintendents say, and their communities may pull out because the program's purpose was to diversify their predominantly white schools.

The Supreme Court decision, which prohibited Seattle and Louisville, Ky., from using race in school assignments, has flung Metco and other desegregation efforts across the nation into uncertainty over whether their admissions policies could withstand legal challenges. Metco parents, students, and other community members plan to gather in Boston today to discuss the potential effects of the court decision, which struck down race as a primary tool for integration but left it open as a last resort.

"If the issue gets down to, 'You cannot assign students by race,' Metco could end," said Jean McGuire, executive director of Metco. "We have to figure out what might happen. The superintendents are worried that somebody's going to tell them they have to put white kids in Metco and their towns won't buy it."

The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program will contin ue as is unless someone challenges it. The program buses 3,169 minority students from Boston and 120 from Springfield to suburban school systems. No lawsuits challenging the program have been filed, and officials said they would await word from lawyers before making any changes. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, a lawyer representing a group of parents trying to overturn Lynn's race-based school assignment policy is pushing Metco to use income instead of race.

Metco is one of at least half a dozen urban-suburban desegregation programs in the country, most of which were created in the 1960s and '70s to counter the racial isolation in the suburbs and give urban minority students access to a better education. At the time, black students faced overcrowded classrooms in segregated Boston schools.

Metco officials said they never intended the program, created in 1966 with 220 students, to last for four decades and remain the primary solution for racial integration in the suburbs. However, because housing patterns remain segregated -- more than half of the suburbs participating in Metco are more than 90 percent white -- Metco has endured.

Boston students are entered onto a waiting list of 12,000 students, including a small number of white students, for about 450 spots a year. Metco refers minority applicants to suburban school systems as seats open. Under state guidelines, for every 10 names Metco refers, six are black, three are Latino and one is Asian, reflecting Boston's minority demographics. A few white students, trying to exploit the system, slip through because they classify themselves as Latino, McGuire said.

Program officials and suburban superintendents worry that allowing white students to participate would jeopardize Metco's future because the Legislature may no longer consider the program worth funding. Representative Gloria Fox of Boston said that any changes to Metco would hurt its support among lawmakers. Already program leaders must lobby the Legislature, and the number of participants has held steady since 1980 because of limited funding.

The state spent $3,700 per Metco student last year, compared with the approximately $8,400 minimum it says school systems should spend on each student; school systems often spend more and pick up the rest of the costs for its Metco students -- something superintendents are skeptical their towns would be willing to do if white students were admitted.

"I wonder if the community would continue to support Metco in the same way if it wasn't a desegregation program," said Michael F. Brandmeyer, Lincoln superintendent and chairman of the Metco Advisory Council. "Why would we do it?"

About 14 percent of Lincoln's students participate in Metco, the highest proportion of the 35 Metco communities.

"We don't need more white children," said Christina Horner, Lincoln's Metco director and a former Metco student overseeing a summer program for the students. "Not that they're not deserving of a quality education, but it's not desegregation."

Chester Darling, an Andover lawyer representing Lynn parents challenging its voluntary desegregation effort, said Metco should admit students by income instead of race to allow poor white students the same opportunities as their urban peers of other races.

"Everyone should have equal access to those buses and the education that they represent," said Darling, who said he received one phone call after the Supreme Court ruling from a white Boston parent eager to challenge Metco's policy.

"I told him to wait and see what happens," Darling said. "It shouldn't go to court. They should get realistic and do the right thing. This just exacerbates racial tension and encourages hostility."

McGuire said she opposes using income as a substitute for race because it would only reinforce stereotypes that Metco is trying to combat. "I'm not going to send a bus of poor kids to the suburbs," McGuire said. "That's cruel. There are enough people who think that all black kids are poor as it is."

Most of the program's families are middle-class; approximately a quarter are low-income, according to Metco. If Metco were banned from using race, McGuire said she would consider selecting students by neighborhoods, since many Boston communities are racially segregated.

"If the law tells us we cannot use race, we have to figure out how to keep this program alive," said Kahris McLaughlin, president of the Metco board and cochairwoman of the state's Racial Imbalance Advisory Council.

Suburban superintendents predicted that Metco's desegregation efforts would be watered down if proxies for race such as income and neighborhoods were used.

"Metco helps the Newton schools look and feel more like the diverse society that our kids are going to have to function in as citizens and leaders," said Jeffrey Young, Newton superintendent. "It's about enriching our lives."

Jeannette Huezo, a Jamaica Plain parent whose children attend Needham schools, said Metco has exposed white Needham students to another culture. She said her children's schoolmates have learned about Hispanic food and culture during visits to her home, where she cooks them rice, beans, and chicken. Ten served on the court of honor for her daughter's quinceañera and learned salsa and meringue for the occasion.

"It was unbelievable to see all those white kids dancing with the swing of a Latino," said Huezo, who plans to speak at today's forum sponsored by United for a Fair Economy, a Boston-based nonprofit. "Even though it's not far away, those kids in Needham live in a bubble."

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said: "We need time. It may be in the final analysis frankly that Metco is fine the way it is, or we may see some changes that ought to be made."

Tracy Jan can be reached at