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A Reluctant 'Point of Light'

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On a brisk sun-drenched November day, I became a "point of light.'' Along with three of my colleagues at the Wayland (Mass.) Middle School, I ran in the New York City Marathon to raise money for Wayland's beleaguered "METCO'' program. METCO--the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity--is a state-funded program that buses inner-city Boston students to over 40 participating suburban communities. The four of us collected more than $4,000 in pledges--enough to keep the afternoon "late'' bus on the road two days a week, enabling the 100 or so Boston students who attend our schools to continue to participate in after-school life.

People's generosity staggered me almost as much as the race itself. Yet, the exhilaration I felt was tempered by a realization which was profoundly troubling: The educational opportunity for the Boston students who sit in my classroom is in danger of being lost. There is something terribly wrong if the only means of keeping a program like METCO alive is through the actions of individual "points of light.''

My Boston students set their alarm clocks each day for 5:00 A.M. They wait on cold, dark street corners to be carried from their urban world to my suburban school, riding buses for nearly three hours a day. They, and more than 3,000 other kids like them, undertake this journey filled with the hope that a better education in the suburbs will translate into a better chance at success in the world after school.

The chance for a high-quality education is an American birthright, which should not rest on the aching feet of a few middle-aged runners. Volunteerism is all well and good, but much-needed social programs should not depend on it.

What has brought us to the point where quality "public education for all,'' part of Massachusetts' legacy for 350 years, is so endangered? We have been told by the last three national administrations that government is bad--a rallying cry which has excused the neglect of the last 12 years. We have learned not to expect the government to provide. As we heard Presidential lectures about family values and "a thousand points of light,'' we witnessed the flow of federal and state dollars reduced to a trickle.

The METCO program is a small gem of a program which costs very little. It receives less than 1 percent of the state's education budget--a budget so low that Massachusetts now ranks 49th out of all 50 states in its support for education. The METCO program is not a panacea, but in a modest way it educates and enriches every Boston and suburban student it touches.

Thirty years ago, Martin Luther King shared his dream that black children and white children would someday play and learn together in our land. METCO began five years later as one attempt to realize that dream. Today, it stands virtually alone as an example of Dr. King's vision.

For 25 years METCO has given thousands of Boston youngsters a glimmer of hope. Now the program is reduced to annual lobbying for enough budgetary "crumbs'' to keep that hope alive. In an op-ed piece entitled "Education by ZIP Code,'' the Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle correctly pointed out, "The way we pay for things guarantees there will be no level playing field when it comes to public education.'' His metaphor reminds us that children are innocent players in this education debate: They neither choose where they are born nor the kind of school system their community may provide.

Our coterie of private-school-educated leaders must show support for equal opportunity in public education by making a commitment to METCO and programs like it. We can and must insist that they do so. It's time for individuals to act--not as "points of light,'' but as agents of change: "points of heat'' who can pressure the people running the show to do the right things.

We need to revitalize our belief in government--not a government of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged; but a government whose caring embraces all its people, and most especially all its children, so that we may rekindle hope for the future.

My Boston students ride their buses nearly 26 miles, roughly the same distance I ran with my colleagues last November. I hope their dreams are still standing as they cross the finish line.

David Summergrad is a teacher in Wayland, Mass., where he heads the Martin Luther King Jr. House. He also serves on the school committee in Needham, Mass., and he is a very casual marathoner.

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