A school-choice double standard

METCO supporters should also embrace charters

THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is right to have long supported the Metropolitan Council for Economic Opportunity (METCO), through which more than 3,300 Boston and Springfield students attend school in surrounding suburbs each year.  METCO has two basic goals: to bring diversity to suburban communities and to provide urban families with meaningful school choice options.

When it comes to the choice prong of METCO’s mission, the program bears much resemblance to the Commonwealth’s charter public schools.  But Juan Cofield, who heads the NAACP’s New England Area Conference, also chairs a campaign to oppose charter school expansion in Massachusetts.

While METCO and charters share many similarities, they often draw dramatically different reactions.  Opponents accuse charter schools of self-selection bias, claiming that only the most involved and motivated parents seek to enroll their children. What then to make of METCO, where parents placed fully one-quarter of current students on the program’s waitlist during the first year of their child’s life? That suggests an extremely high level of motivation.

Opponents claim that charter schools “cream” the best students.  Yet while charters admit students by lottery when the schools are oversubscribed – which they invariably are – METCO selectively chooses Boston students and in Springfield, the city’s school district picks which students to admit to the program.

The loudest anti-charter howls are about money, even though state law calls for school districts to receive more than two years’ worth of funding over a six-year period after a student chooses to leave for a charter school. Charter reimbursements have been fully funded in 12 of the 17 years since 2000. Boston and Springfield, on the other hand, receive no reimbursement when a student is selected for the METCO program.

Despite selection and funding processes that are demonstrably more democratic and more generous than METCO’s, charter schools are the subject of unrelenting hostility. There is nary a hint of opposition to the METCO program.

To be clear, these comparisons are in no way meant to denigrate METCO. In fact, Pioneer Institute has published two studies calling for the program to be expanded to other cities and its funding increased. But it is hard to ignore the difference in the reception METCO and charter schools receive in their communities.

Another thing the two programs share is a record of success.  METCO performance data are not as accessible as we would like, but at least 15 percent more of the program’s students scored proficient or better on 2010 MCAS tests compared to their district counterparts in Boston and Springfield. METCO students also have significantly higher graduation rates.

As for charter schools, a 2015 Stanford University study found that Boston charters are doing more to eliminate the achievement gap between affluent and low-income students than any other group of public schools in the country. Earlier this year, an MIT study found that Boston charter school students have significantly higher SAT scores and are more likely to take Advanced Placement tests and attend four-year colleges than are their counterparts who entered charter lotteries but were not selected.

In 2014, 18 charter schools – many of them urban – had the best results in all of Massachusetts on various MCAS tests.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
Meet the Author

Gerard Robinson

Guest Contributor, American Enterprise Institute
Strong demand is another attribute METCO and charter schools share. There are more than 34,000 students on charter school waitlists, while the average wait to get into METCO is about five years.

It’s hard to reconcile the positions of those who claim that charter schools “siphon” money from school districts and “cream” the best students, yet support METCO. The facts are clear: Both of these highly successful programs should be celebrated — and expanded.

Tom Birmingham was co-author of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 and is distinguished senior fellow in education at Pioneer Institute. Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and member of Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform advisory board.