AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Yesterday we brought you the story of a family in a voluntary school integration program, one that has its roots in America's desegregation era. It's called METCO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity. And for nearly 50 years, its bussed black kids from Boston to high-performing schools in the majority white suburbs around them.
I was in the program in the '80s, traveling almost an hour back and forth between home and school every day. I recently returned to Boston to check in on the program and rode along on that same route with 13-year-old Bryan Bailey.
BRYAN BAILEY: As you get used to it, it starts to get shorter 'cause you, like, know. It doesn't feel like a long wait. Unless, like, my friends are not there and I can't talk to anyone, then it feels long.
CORNISH: The $18 million program is state funded, paying out roughly $5,000 per kid to the suburban towns that take part in this legacy desegregation program. When I asked METCO's longtime director Jean McGuire about that legacy, about whether the founders ever envisioned a 50-year anniversary, she laughed.
JEAN MCGUIRE: No. Ruth said, you know, we shouldn't have to do this after a couple of years. Boston should have integrated schools and housing, and the banking laws will change. It hasn't.
CORNISH: Ruth is Ruth Batson, the late civil rights activist from Boston. Back in 1966, she and other black parents started working with progressive white school leaders in the suburbs to get METCO going. Jean McGuire says initially the program was about getting black kids access to better schools, but it was also about giving white parents a chance to participate in the integration movement.
MCGUIRE: Much of what went down was that angst that people had about the slow pace of change and the policies which were blocking that change. So this involved many suburban white families. And without them, I don't think we could have done it the way we did it.
CORNISH: And that became especially important when a federal court order some 10 years later forced school busing on the city of Boston. The ensuing backlash made national headlines, and yet METCO continued almost under the radar.
Today the program has a 90 percent high school graduation rate, and METCO students score higher on state achievement tests than their peers in the Boston public schools. But between high housing prices and restrictive zoning policies, there are suburban communities in METCO that look a lot like they did in the past - majority white, which means as adults, METCO alums look back at their experience with mixed feelings. I compared notes with 39-year-old Shaleea Vass-Bender.
One thing I remember about that feeling is that it was the feeling of being treated as a guest all the time.
SHALEEA VASS-BENDER: Oh, absolutely.
CORNISH: It was never your school.
CORNISH: It was always, like...
CORNISH: It's so nice for us to let you be here.
VASS-BENDER: Right, almost like you were constantly asking permission, like you said, like being a guest in someone's house. You don't feel comfortable enough to throw your feet up on the sofa or go into the refrigerator, right? You, oh, do you mind? Or is it OK? And because you feel like someone's doing you a favor, you don't feel like you can just be and just exist and like it's your home. It doesn't feel like home, you know?
CORNISH: And advocate for yourself when something goes wrong.
VASS-BENDER: Right, which is, like - when you say that - it's interesting that my parents had the wherewithal to do that, to say - and I think that comes from the fact that my parents grew up during busing. And so they went through a system where it was forced desegregation. And they were some of the students who had rocks and bottles thrown at their kids school bus and got chased home.
And so when it came to them choosing an educational opportunity for me, they didn't want me in Boston because they didn't want me to go through the same experience. And so METCO was the natural choice for them.
CORNISH: Do you feel like there are certain ways you carry yourself or move through life or jobs you take or things like that that in a way are a result of having been in this environment and through this kind of program?
VASS-BENDER: Yes. I don't limit myself is the best way I can put it, you know? I'm OK with being the only black or brown girl there. In most environments I am, and I'm totally fine with that, you know? And I'm able to speak up for myself, and I'm able to advocate for myself. And sometimes I can be a little pushy with it, but that's OK.
CORNISH: And this self-confidence falls in line with the research on the effects on kids who go to middle- and upper-middle-class schools. They get the benefit of the smaller class sizes, college prep courses and other resources. But when it came to her own son, Shaleea Vass-Bender, a Boston parent, said no to busing him out of the city. Instead she chose a charter school.
VASS-BENDER: For me, sending him to a charter school or the charter school that I chose for him meant that he was going to be in a school that expected the highest quality work at all times, that he would be in a community with people who looked like him, that he would be in a community that was close to our home and close to my job, that he would have teachers who looked like him.
CORNISH: A lot of parents agree with her. There are more than 33,000 kids on waiting lists for Massachusetts charter schools. Over the last decade and a half, charter and magnet schools have had the spotlight when it comes to urban education. But charter schools don't solve the problem of racial isolation.
MATTHEW DELMONT: And charter schools and magnet schools can do something about integration if they make that part of their mandate. I think in most cases those schools have not done that.
CORNISH: That's Matthew Delmont. He's a professor at Arizona State University and author of the book "Why Busing Failed." Delmont says even before the rise of charter schools, desegregation programs had faded as a political priority for white and black communities.
DELMONT: What black parents wanted, like any parent, was the quality of resources. It was never necessarily about just sitting next to white students in the classroom.
CORNISH: So as other busing programs faded away, METCO became a quirk of history.
DELMONT: A couple of things happened that make it difficult to sustain busing programs into the '80s and '90s. One is the tremendous amount of white flight that happens in cities like Boston. So there simply aren't enough white students to go around to have meaningful school desegregation. This is true in Chicago. It's true in Los Angeles, true in New York.
The other thing that happens is, busing placed a tremendous burden on black students and on students of color. So in most cases, they were the ones that were asked to travel to the suburbs, travel to sometimes hostile neighborhoods. For many parents, that simply isn't worth it after a number of years. So that's one of the reasons that, from both perspectives, communities start to turn away from busing.
CORNISH: If not busing, what were the other ways that schools tried to desegregate in modern times?
DELMONT: So there were a couple popular plans. One would be magnet schools - so trying to funnel resources into schools primarily in counties of color that would attract white students back to those schools. Those have received different amounts of success in different communities, but it's been a program that has some merit and has been popular for good reason.
Another would be simply redrawing zoning lines. I think one of the reasons busing got so much attention was that it seemed very inconvenient, you know? They're talking about transporting students half hour across the city. In many communities, if you simply redraw the zoning lines, you can accomplish school desegregation. It's still tremendously controversial, but it's something that has produced meaningful school integration in some places that have tried it.
BRYAN: But it's not just about race. Right now the number of high-poverty schools is growing. The Government Accountability Office found just this year that 16 percent of K through 12 public schools were isolated by race and by income, double what it was in 2000.
Now, that disproportionately affects minority students. Low-income white students are far less likely to end up in low-income schools. But Matthew Delmont says there are legal roadblocks when it comes to using race to deal with this issue.
DELMONT: There are two issues. There's one. The Supreme Court has consistently handed down decisions that say that race can't be the primary factor in drawing these school zoning lines, that the Court does not want to see race be the deciding factor in these school desegregation issues.
The other issue as a matter of political will and how much white parents will go for it. So I think it's unfortunately the case that across the country, white parents simply don't want to send their kids to schools that have large numbers of African-American or Latino students even if they're - consider themselves to be liberal and might say in theory or in the abstract that they're in favor of integration. When push comes to shove and they have these integration programs, they almost consistently oppose them, oppose any sort of meaningful school integration.
CORNISH: Now, the Obama administration is looking to discuss this issue again. They're talking about this idea of grants for voluntary integration programs, but they want those programs to use income as a deciding factor. What does that mean, and what would that look like?
DELMONT: I think one of the challenges with what the Obama administration is proposing is the voluntary aspect. I think voluntary is great, but the number of school districts that are likely to take this on - I think the Century Foundation has been doing some research on this. It's something like 1 percent of the school districts in the country are attempting these voluntary programs.
I don't think that's ever going to scale much beyond 5 percent or 10 percent unless there is some real political will put behind it. I think it's great to offer some cash incentives and encourage people to take this on voluntarily, but the history from the last five decades is, school districts simply won't do this voluntarily, that if we want to see meaningful school desegregation, whether that's in terms of socioeconomic status or race, it has to be encourage strongly.
CORNISH: These days no one's suggesting that the efforts after Brown v. Board of Education have completely failed, but the growing numbers of racially and economically isolated schools means the ideal of integrated classrooms is still effectively out of reach.
And looking back at 50 years of Boston's METCO program, 50 years of waiting lists, kids like me on bus rides and families struggling to make it all work, it all feels like a grand experiment, one that isn't entirely over.
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CORNISH: Tomorrow we'll hear how the Obama administration plans to tackle the issue of segregated schools. Education Secretary John King will be on the program.
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