An eyewitness view of school segregation — in Needham

Massachusetts needs to confront the reality of racial segregation

FOR 60 SECONDS in the early evening, the best view in Greater Boston transportation is aboard an outbound MBTA commuter rail train as it passes Millennium Park in West Roxbury, goes over the Charles River, and into Cutler Park Reservation in Needham. For Needham-bound commuters, it is a peaceful and at times majestic end to the workday.

That stretch of land also spans one of the most segregated school district borders in Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth Fault Lines report, released one year ago by the national education research group EdBuild and the Massachusetts startup policy action lab Policy For Progress, demonstrated that the Needham-Boston line is one of the most socioeconomically segregating municipal borders in the state. On one side, 58 percent of Boston’s public school students qualify as economically disadvantaged, while on the other just 5 percent of Needham public school students meet that definition. 

The stark differences in student demographics in the neighboring communities are examples of the systemic inequities that some have termed “opportunity hoarding.” Such glaring divisions exist at other municipal boundaries in Massachusetts — affluent Longmeadow bordering Springfield, and wealthy Andover adjacent to Lawrence are two examples. But Needham, where I grew up and now live, stands out because it was also recently in the public policy spotlight as an example of the region’s housing shortfall and misuse of transportation assets — two important dimensions of the economic and racial segregation in the Commonwealth. 

I entered kindergarten in the fall of 1988 at Mitchell Elementary School, about two miles from Boston. It was the 23rd year of the METCO program that brought predominantly Black students from Boston into Needham public schools and other suburban districts. While that effort injected at least a minimal sense of racial diversity into our school and social lives, not all elementary schools participated — a reflection corroborated by my 5th grade yearbook and classmate memories.

Somehow, more than three decades after Brown v. Board of Education, I attended a public elementary school with zero Black students, within walking distance of a district that was 48 percent Black

Three decades later, I moved back to Needham as a parent. Around that time, EdBuild produced its report on the most segregating school borders in America. Following conversations with a Boston elected official who was a METCO alum, I took a closer look at the data on Needham. In 2016, the elementary school I entered almost 30 years earlier had just one Black kindergartener

Some things have changed. Needham’s percentage of white students has dropped from 90 percent when I graduated high school in 2001 to 74 percent today. Segregation in Needham, as in other communities across the state, is more demographically complex than a generation ago. Yet major themes remain.

My entry into elementary school was about the midpoint between Brown v Board in 1954 and today. For the mostly white students in Needham public schools, myself included, METCO was better than nothing — but not nearly enough to prepare us fully to be effective citizens of our region or our nation. 

Integration brings clear academic and cognitive benefits to all students, as well as broader economic and civic advantages. There is a significant body of research on this, but for my fellow partisans in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts one fact may jump out: White students who attend integrated schools are far less likely as adults to register as Republicans.  

Beyond the academic research and my own perspective as a white parent and student who would have benefited from a less racially isolated environment, public opinion broadly favors integration. Policy For Progress partnered with Change Research, a national polling firm for progressive causes, to conduct polling on the issue in the summers of 2019 and 2020. Massachusetts voters across demographics favor more integrated schools and overwhelmingly believe that all students benefit equally from school integration. 

What most voters don’t see, however, is segregation as a major problem. The PFP polling found an increase in voter perception of the problem between 2019 and 2020 (from 38 percent to 45 percent), but voters still believe — incorrectly — that school segregation is a bigger issue in the rest of the country than in Massachusetts.

School segregation is an incredibly complicated issue, involving complex financial, legal, historical, and various other social dynamics. There are credible arguments opposing such an emphasis that must be grappled with. Some may point to the opportunity cost of focusing on segregation instead of school quality — in our polling, Massachusetts voters of color did prioritize quality over integration — or an implication that integration efforts are driven by the false notion that proximity to white students alone brings academic benefits. And the personal benefits that increased integration would have brought to my academic experience are a textbook example of the “interest convergence” theory, which stipulates that changes only occur when they benefit whites as well.

There is no one obvious solution, but the absence of a state-level conversation is problematic.

Leaders are starting to try to change that. Bills to create commissions studying segregation have been filed in the Legislature by Rep. Chynah Tyler of Roxbury and Sen. Brendan Crighton of Lynn. Meanwhile, local leadership can certainly play a role — efforts decades ago in Weston and Lincoln made the towns METCO outliers, with community voices bringing their share of METCO students to levels more than 50 percent higher than the dozens of other participating districts.

But as the state heads into the 2022 statewide elections, the reality of segregated schools can also bring more sharply into focus the gap between our Commonwealth’s values and reality on a range of critical issues. 

For many voters, the real-world impact of policy decisions is an often-missed part of everyday life. Elevating a discussion on school segregation can bring these issues to the forefront. For instance, most weekdays for the next five years, I will walk past a half mile of single family zoned houses to drop my kids at a neighborhood public school where fewer than 1 percent of recent kindergarteners are Black, and then take the commuter rail into Boston.

While the connection between these three things escapes many voters, policy wonks are all over it. A recent report from the Brookings Institution and Boston Foundation titled “Zoned Out” focused on a Needham MBTA commuter rail station and how it typifies the lost opportunity in our compact region. Despite some of the worst traffic and most prohibitive housing costs in the country, parcels near the station that are ideal for more affordable, multi-unit transit-oriented housing construction are significantly restricted by state and local policy. These interconnected issues reinforce racial and economic segregation. 

Meanwhile, the opportunity hoarding my Needham neighbors and I already benefit from comes with added taxpayer-funded perks — the state subsidizes my commuter rail ride at $13 per round trip, nearly 10 times the amount of a subway rider on the T’s Red, Blue or Orange line.

Intensely segregated public schools can viscerally expose the gap between our Commonwealth’s values and our reality. Those classrooms may be a focal point, but they illustrate much broader policy failures that limit choices in jobs, homes, and commutes while stunting regional economic growth and the potential for more vibrant communities.

I wrote much of this back when the daily commuter rail cars were packed. But I was never quite able to quite hit send — there was always another complexity to unfurl, report to read, or angle that may be ill-received.

That hesitancy also feels true for many of our towns, and our state, when it comes to addressing segregation and its myriad drivers. It is complicated, occasionally awkward, and never considered urgent. In the forums where we collectively make choices – town meetings, statewide elections, legislative debate – the issue has mostly been absent for a generation. 

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Lawmakers should pass the commission-creating bills filed by Rep. Tyler and Sen. Crighton. But we should also create a sense of urgency for statewide candidates in 2022 to bring the lens of segregated schools to the conversation on the policy changes that can bring us closer to our values and potential as a Commonwealth.

Liam Kerr is a Needham resident and an organizer of Policy For Progress.