Whither METCO?

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So the House has crafted its response to the Governor’s 2012 “H1” budget. People will continue to scrutinize the budget blueprints—especially given that the Governor and House have based their work to “balance” the budget on two huge (and frankly irresponsible) assumptions.

First, both the Governor and the House project a somewhat magical, dramatic reversal in Medicaid’s trend of sizable annual increases in enrollee costs, going from an average five percent growth rate over the past five years to a reduction of 3.5 percent in 2012! The second sleight of hand is a 15-year extension (to 2040) in how fast we pay off our public pensions. The postponement frees up $1 billion in current money so we can spend it now. But later it will require billions of dollars in new costs to pay down the state’s pension liability. More here.

Even with these accounting moves, core programs in education are getting cut. I’ll have more on the overall education budget soon, but the topline story is that education funding is being slashed. That is largely because the federal stimulus money that was made available starting from FY10 has been fully expended. So now Governor Patrick, while increasing state funding to schools, cannot make up that gap. Happily for him, he has not been the target of the bitter attacks that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was subjected to for doing exactly the same thing (see the infamous bad joke and see a NJEA ad here).

Then there is the inexplicable focus on cutting a currently small but very important program for Boston and Springfield students—METCO. METCO is an interdistrict choice program that for decades was restricted to African-American students, but now also includes increasing numbers of Hispanic and Asian students in these cities.

How important is METCO? Every year, the parents of 12,000 Boston students apply for just under 500 openings. The waiting lists are long, and families find themselves waiting on average five years for a spot. (In Springfield, the only other urban district that has the METCO program, there are 50 applications for every available spot.)

Since 2008, Governor Patrick has cut around 15 percent from the METCO budget, even as a new Secretary position and office were created that cost an additional million dollars and a variety of new programs were started. In 2008, METCO spending was $20.3 million, heading down in 2009 to $19.3 million, in 2010 to $18.5 million, and in 2011 to $17.6 million. The governor’s proposed 2012 budget leaves the METCO budget at $17.6 million.

Much has been made of the fact that the lack of interest in METCO is surprising given the remarkable similarity between METCO and A Better Chance, the program that helped transform the governor’s life by granting him a scholarship that took him from the south side of Chicago to Milton Academy. (The governor identifies with ABC so much that his biography is posted on ABC’s homepage.)

Given the overwhelming demand for METCO seats in Boston and Springfield, and the persistent achievement gaps in Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn and so many other cities, one might think that METCO would have strong support from the governor–and from the House of Representatives.

Sadly, that’s not at all the case. The House budget for 2012 cuts even deeper, taking another $1.5 million from METCO’s budget (down to $16.14 million). View line item 7010-0012 at this link.

As the Globe’s Peter Schworm noted in 2009:

Over the past four years, 88 percent of students in the voluntary desegregation program, which sent 3,275 black, Hispanic, and Asian-American students last year from Boston to 31 suburban districts, enrolled in college, according to information provided by METCO. That proportion generally matches the overall college-going rate at the high schools they attend.

While there is room for improvement in the program and in METCO students’ academic achievement, that seems like an opportunity worth building on, not cutting; especially when state officials continue to talk about how their number one goal is the close persistent achievement gaps.

I really don’t know what drives this lack of commitment to METCO, and I really am not interested in discussing the Governor’s or the House’s intentions. That’s a thicket full of innuendo and thorns. The fact is, if one of our top goals is to close the achievement gap, and if METCO is doing a pretty good job in getting us there, shouldn’t we be building on this proven model (while yes, seeking improvements) rather than expending tons of energy and money testing out charter-lite programs?

There are lots of places where we could cut the budget without touching core public services. But METCO is not the place to cut. In tight budget times, and with less state money already coming to them through Chapter 70, you can be sure that districts outside of Boston that participate in METCO are trying to understand if they can continue to afford the program.

Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse.