New Report: Closing the Achievement Gap Through METCO

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Closing the Achievement Gap Through METCO

Pioneer Institute study urges expansion beyond Boston and Springfield, as well as additional state funding

Read news coverage of this report on WBUR’s Learning Lab, WBZ (“Educators Call For Metco Program Expansion“), and The Boston Globe.

BOSTON – Pioneer Institute published research today highlighting the success of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) in closing the achievement gaps in Massachusetts; and calling for expansion and additional state funding to serve more students in the state’s urban areas.

In Expanding METCO and Closing Achievement Gaps co-authors Kate Apfelbaum and Ken Ardon describe METCO’s work as a limited but successful voluntary program to reduce racial imbalances in public schools. The paper also features a preface by Gerard Robinson, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options Action Fund. Through METCO about 3,300 students from Boston and Springfield attend schools in surrounding suburbs each year. The program provides an important school choice option for urban students in Massachusetts.

The paper is a follow up to a 2011 report released jointly by Pioneer Institute and Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice entitled METCO Merits More, which was the first comprehensive research paper on METCO in more than a decade.

The popularity of METCO is demonstrated by a waiting list of about 10,000 students hoping to gain admission into high-performing suburban schools. The paper reports that tests scores and graduation rates are higher for METCO students than their peers in Boston and Springfield. “METCO students halved the achievement gap in both the 3rd grade reading and 6th grade math tests,” the report indicates. “In sixth grade reading, virtually the same percentage of METCO students score proficient or higher as the Commonwealth average.”

These academic successes are critical given that in Massachusetts more than 25 percent of African-American students and similar numbers of Hispanic students attend heavily segregated, low-performing schools. Segregation may play a part in explaining the various achievement gaps, as minority students in more integrated schools outperform their peers in more segregated ones.

Despite the popularity and progress of METCO, state funding has fallen during the past decade. The program is primarily funded by a modest line item in the state budget. One issue is the inconsistent funding from the state to the districts. The net cost to the state varies depending on whether students come from Boston or Springfield and which district they attend. There is also wide variation for the participating districts.

In Boston the program has no fiscal impact. However, Springfield loses thousands of dollars of aid for each student in the program. In the suburban districts that METCO students attend, each METCO student results in additional aid of between $5,000 and $17,000.

Still, the authors argue that expansion in Boston and Springfield for the thousands of students on waiting lists, as well as in other cities such as Holyoke and Worcester, makes sense. They contend that the total cost of balanced expansion, combined with funding reform, would be a tiny fraction of education expenditures with the potential to affect the lives of thousands of students.

To that end they recommend incorporating funding for METCO into the Chapter 70 state aid formula, which automatically adjusts funding levels for inflation. Though Chapter 70 legislation has been criticized for its complexity, it is among the most progressive state school funding formulas in the country. Building METCO into the formula could actually increase transparency so that receiving districts have a better understanding of the impact of METCO on their budgets.

Apfelbaum and Ardon also call for increased transparency and accountability of METCO by state officials to monitor, measure, and report its impact. The authors say the research should include a study comparing the educational achievement of students who gain a spot off of the waitlist and those that do not. Increased accountability on the part of the commonwealth must be met with transparency from METCO, Inc. Better records on the demographics of the students participating and waiting to participate must be made available by the state. Finally, detailed information on the size of the waitlist and the procedure by which students are selected off of the waitlist should be annually published.

Apfelbaum was Pioneer Institute’s Peters Fellow in Education and worked on research related to school choice in Massachusetts. Ardon is chair of the Salem State University Economics Department and a member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform Advisory Board. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999, where he co-authored a book on school spending and student achievement. Robinson is the former Florida Commissioner of Education and was also the Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.