The Commonwealth's METCO Program as a Blueprint for Expanding School Integration Across District Lines.

AuthorBrooks, J. Brendan

"Prejudice is the child of ignorance. It is sure to prevail, where people do not know each other." (1)


    By 2045, for the first time in its history, the United States of America will no longer be comprised of a white majority. (2) American public schools already reflect this shift: In 2016, nonwhite students outnumbered white students for the first time. (3) Yet public schools are resegregating. (4) Students in poverty, who are disproportionately nonwhite, attend underresourced and understaffed schools and, unsurprisingly, test well below white peers in more affluent school districts. (5)

    In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, statewide racial diversity increased substantially between 2008 and 2020, and many of the state's school districts reflect this trend. (6) Neither policy, nor any new push to implement the state's civil-rights-era Racial Imbalance Act (RIA), have intentionally steered this trend. (7) While it is true that racial diversity has increased in many districts, in the state's three largest cities--Boston, Springfield, and Worcester--students of color are increasingly concentrated in some of the state's lowest-performing schools. (8) In a majority of the state's cities, the number of intensely segregated nonwhite schools spiked between 2010 and 2020, despite the concurrent rise in diversity statewide. (9)

    The legal scholarship on school segregation is vast, increasingly so since Brown v. Board of Education {Brown I), (10) when the Supreme Court effectuated what "may be the most important political, social, and legal event in America's twentieth-century history." (11) A more recent spark for school segregation scholarship came following the Court's 2007 ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, (12) which had significant implications for K-12 school integration both nationally and for Massachusetts. (13) In all the legal scholarship on school segregation, however, emphasis on METCO--one of the oldest and most successful integration programs in the country--has been relatively scant. (14) This Note attempts to provide the central legal and policy focus METCO deserves because the program offers a proven solution not only to educational inequity but also, in less quantifiable ways, to social polarization. (15)

    Section II.A of this Note contextualizes the outsized role Massachusetts has long played in the legal, social, and political history of school segregation and how the RIA has quietly been the basis for the METCO program since the 1960s. (16) Section II.B then chronologizes the federal jurisprudence on school segregation, against which the constitutionality of the RIA and the METCO program this Note's final analysis weighs. (17) Section III.A synthesizes a case for why K-12 schools absolutely have a compelling interest in making policy that promotes integration and why METCO falls constitutionally within that compelling interest paradigm. (18) Section III.B then offers a narrow-tailoring analysis of the RIA generally and, with more depth, of METCO's two-tiered admissions process. (19) This Note concludes that both the RIA and the METCO admissions process would likely survive strict scrutiny if challenged on equal protection grounds and that METCO deserves expansion based on its track record of success. (20)


    A. Massachusetts: An Outsized Legacy in the History of School Segregation

    1. Birthplace of Separate but Equal and the Nation's First Desegregation Law

      The doctrine of "separate but equal" is best known, if by one single case, from Plessy v. Ferguson. (21) Yet the doctrine originated in Massachusetts almost fifty years before Plessy in Roberts v. City of Boston. (22) Charles Sumner represented five-year-old Sarah C. Roberts, whose father brought suit after Boston denied Sarah admission to the all-white school she wanted to attend because it was closer to home than the all-Black school she was forced to attend. (23) The famed Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, however, upheld Boston's policy to segregate its schools based on skin color. (24) In "an inversion of the order of logic," Shaw framed the legal question "in such a way as to make possible by his answer the 'separate but equal' doctrine," reasoning that while Black citizens were equal under the Commonwealth's constitution, constitutional equality did not mean Black kids had a right to go to school with their peers. (25)

      Perhaps because he lost the day, Sumner's oral argument from Roberts is not well-known, but it "deserves to be included in a volume of great documents on American democracy." (26) Sumner framed the issue of segregated schooling in biblical terms to illustrate the injury segregation inflicted on children, both Black and white:

      [W]hites themselves are injured by the separation. Who can doubt this? With the Law as their monitor, they are taught ... practically to deny that grand revelation of Christianity, the Brotherhood of Man. Hearts, while yet tender with childhood, are hardened .... Nursed in the sentiments of Caste ... they are unable to eradicate it from their natures. (27)

      Though Massachusetts would become the first state to desegregate its schools by statute six years after Roberts in 1855, Shaw's doctrine time and again won out during Reconstruction, as state courts across the country relied on Roberts's separate but equal reasoning to maintain segregation in schools and other public accommodations. (28) By the end of the nineteenth century, the Supreme Court relied on Shaw's logic in Roberts to uphold Louisiana's racist rail law in Plessy. (29)

    2. The Boston Busing Crisis and the RIA

      In the twentieth century, Massachusetts is best known in the context of school segregation for Boston's 1974 busing riots, but a decade before that crisis, the legislature actively sought to integrate schools by passing the RIA. (30) In the early 1960s, a state advisory committee urged passage because school segregation had become an emergency. (31) The RIA would focus not only on extending educational opportunities to students of color in underresourced, inferior schools, but also on white students, about whom the RIA's drafters worried were developing "fear and prejudice crippl[ing] the[ir] creativity and productivity." (32) The RIA was the Commonwealth's attempt to heal the wounds inflicted by segregation on both Black and white students through school integration. (33)

      The RIA requires that all public school districts track enrollment data by race to identify any schools that lack "racial balance." (34) The RIA generally defines a racially balanced school as one where nonwhite students make up 30%-50% of the student body. (35) A racially imbalanced school is one where the student body is over 50% nonwhite. (36) The RIA considers a school racially "isolated" if it is less than 30% nonwhite. (37) If by a district's enrollment data, however, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) identifies a lack of racial balance in some or all of a district's schools, the RIA's 30%-50% target for achieving racial balance is not strictly enforced. (38) Moreover, demographic realities often make attaining that target ratio impossible. (39)

      The RIA's intradistrict transfer provision grants nonwhite students attending racially imbalanced schools a statutory right to transfer to any isolated school within their own district. (40) The intradistrict provision also grants white students the same right in the inverse scenario: If a white student at a racially isolated school wants to transfer to an imbalanced school within their home district, that student is entitled to a transfer. (41) Space permitting, districts must honor these transfer requests whether from a white or nonwhite student, so long as the requested transfer would serve to maintain or move the receiving school closer to racial balance.(42) In most Massachusetts cities, however, there are not nearly enough white students for schools to achieve the RIA's 30%-50% target for balance. (43)

      Acknowledging that integration is more feasible across school district lines, the RIA's voluntary interdistrict integration provision allows any district to "adopt a plan for attendance at its schools by any child who resides in another city, town, or regional school district in which racial imbalance" exists. (44) Correspondingly, the RIA's interdistrict transfer provision allows students attending racially imbalanced schools to transfer to districts where they do not live that have proposed a voluntary interdistrict transfer plan and received DESE's approval under the RIA's voluntary integration provision. (45)

    3. The METCO Program

      The RIA's corresponding interdistrict provisions are the basis for the second-oldest voluntary school integration program in the country: METCO. (46) METCO evolved from "Operation Exodus," where a group of Black Boston parents, fed up with the educational apartheid in the city, organized with empathetic white school leaders to enroll Black students at all-white schools. (47) In 1966, based on the Exodus model, Boston parents established METCO, Inc., a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which was given statutory authority to facilitate the integration of Boston students of color into seven original suburban school districts. (48) As authorized under the RIA, METCO, Inc. supports all of the program's thirty-three suburban districts, providing various school-year and summer services for students and families. (49) METCO, Inc.'s primary role is to manage the admissions process for Boston-resident applicants seeking enrollment through the program in a suburban school. (50)

      In 2019, METCO, Inc. changed its admissions policy from a long-used "waiting list" process--which included around 15,000 students--to an admission lottery. (51) The new METCO lottery randomly selects applicants who are then placed on a referral list. (52) The only eligibility requirement is that the...

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