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Little Known Boston Bussing Campaign Helps Desegregate Schools - 2004-05-20

May 17 marked the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision known as "Brown vs. Board of Education." That ruling said the southern practice of separating black and white students, sending them to different schools, was unconstitutional. But school segregation wasn't just a southern phenomenon. It had legal sanction in the South, but in the North, neighborhood schools were racially segregated because of settlement patterns. Urban blacks and whites usually lived in different parts of the city. And, just like in the South, the predominantly black schools were underfunded.

In 1964, a decade after the Brown decision, black parents in the city of Boston started campaigning for racially balanced schools. The Boston Schools Committee opposed their efforts.

Board Member: "But Mrs. Johnson, the superintendent of schools stated as his policy that a racially imbalanced school is not educationally harmful."

Parent: "Well, Mrs. Hicks. Madam Chairman. May I say this: Superintendent Orenberger and yourself do not have children in a racially imbalanced school, so you do not know what the effect is on our children."

Ten years after the campaign began, a federal judge ordered the city of Boston to bus white students into black neighborhoods and vice-versa in an effort to abide by the Supreme Court's "Brown" decision. Bear in mind, that decision had been handed down twenty years earlier.

"Just because I'm white doesn't mean the 14th Amendment doesn't apply to me, either. I am white, and I want my rights!" one protester shouted.

The city erupted in violence. Boston, the birthplace of American Independence, made headlines around the world.

White parents and students boycotted schools and harassed black children as they climbed into busses.

"They were throwing eggs at the bus and trying to hit people with them. And they was calling them 'black niggers'," a black girl recalls.

It was several years before the violent reaction to mandatory bussing in Boston died down. Today, however, bussing still generates opposition. Boston's neighborhoods are still racially segregated, and students are still bussed across town, even if there's a perfectly good school right across the street from their homes. Many experts have pronounced Boston's intra-city bussing program a failure. So does that mean bussing is a bad way to integrate schools? Not necessarily. Shortly before bussing was mandated in Boston, another program was started that's been reasonably successful for the past 30 years.

The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or "METCO", is often referred to as "Boston's Other Bussing Program." It didn't generate controversy when it started in the 1970s, and that's likely the reason most people outside Boston don't know about it.

Every weekday morning, Christina Tilghman, 17, arrives at Codman Square, in Boston's low-income Dorchester neighborhood, to catch a METCO bus to school.

"I wake up around 5:30, it gives me time to get up, shower, get dressed, brush my teeth," she explains. "And once I'm on the bus, it takes about 45 minutes to get to school."

Christina is one of about 3,200 minority students in the city of Boston who are bussed out to the suburbs to attend school. Unlike the intra-city program that's been generating controversy since the 1970s, the inter-city METCO program is completely voluntary. The 38 suburban communities that participate are under no obligation to accept students like Christina. And Christina and her neighbors in Dorchester don't have to go all the way out to the suburbs to attend school. But they do and METCO has a waiting list of 16,500 students in Boston who'd like to join Christina Tilghman on her daily commute to the suburbs.

"Honestly, the education in Boston isn't up to par. I don't know exactly how to explain it, but I talk to students where they tell me that they take math and science one half of the year, and then English and history the other half. I feel like those are subjects you need all year round. And my friend actually got a letter home saying none of his teachers were licensed, so he gets to pass free."

Trying to understand why the schools in the suburbs are so much better than the ones in the city is no easy feat. A lot of it has to do with the way education is funded in the United States. The bulk of funding comes from taxes passed by each individual district. That means wealthier communities have more money to devote to education. Jean Maguire is executive director of METCO. She's an energetic and passionate black woman in her early seventies who began her career more than 40 years ago teaching in one of Boston's underfunded, racially segregated schools. Ms. Maguire says a child shouldn't be denied the opportunity to discover his intellectual potential just because he was born poor and black in the city.

"Everybody values education. I don't know anyone who doesn't want a good education for their kids, unless they're pathologically damaged as parents," she says.

It costs around $7,300 a year to educate a child in the state of Massachusetts. The communities that participate in METCO get slightly more than $2,400 from the state for every METCO student they accept. The rest of the cost of the students' education has to be met by taxpayers in the suburban community. So why is it, then, that education officials in wealthy, predominantly white towns like Lexington, Wellesley, and Foxborough are willing to pay money to have minority students from Boston attend their schools?

"Because in every community there are people who understand that part of a first-class education means you learn about other people and how to deal with them. You learn to navigate the shoals of the world," Ms. Maguire says.

METCO has not been without its share of problems. Ten years ago, the state Department of Education ordered the program to recruit more Hispanic and Asian students. But with no additional funding, METCO is still dominated by African-Americans, and that's been a source of tension. Recently, one suburban community threatened to pull out of the program, because of behavioral problems it was having with the METCO students. And then there's the fact that test scores among students in the program have been consistently low. Kevin Lang, an Economics professor at Boston University, has done some research on METCO and has worked actively to maintain the program in his community of Brookline. He says the Bush administration's policy of tying federal funding to test scores could have a negative impact on METCO.

"I think in most of the communities, that's not going to be an issue," he says. "Most communities have a strong belief in the benefits of the program to our students. But I can imagine that as schools in these suburban districts are labeled 'underperforming,' that there will be an effort to 'solve' the problem by eliminating the METCO program."

But if test scores among METCO students tend to be low, why is it that many educators consider the program to be successful? Susan Eaton, a researcher who's worked with The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, says the goal of METCO, when it was founded, wasn't to get black kids' test scores up. It was to teach marginalized children how to function and succeed in mainstream American society. Ms. Eaton has interviewed dozens of METCO students who've been out of high school for anywhere from five to 25 years, and she says METCO's goal has been met.

"They were more likely as a result of their experience in this program to enter predominantly white settings," she says. "They moved with much more confidence into that setting, first of all, and then secondly, they perceived that they were much more likely to persist in these settings - to stay there - when it was challenging, when they felt uncomfortable, when they encountered racism or ignorance on the part of whites."

So then does that mean that METCO teaches black kids how to be white? It's a provocative question, but one Christina Tilghman, 17, doesn't shy away from.

"In a way, when you look at in just simple terms, yes. This is a white man's society. It's dominated by them. And to play by their rules, you gotta play like them," she says. "And METCO, it teaches you how to play in the real world."

Christina Tilghman says as more and more black children learn how to play in the so-called "real world," the black voice in American society will grow stronger. And then maybe someday, she says, predominantly black communities and their schools won't be poor. Indeed, Christina Tilghman hopes that someday, there won't even be predominantly black or white communities in America.