On a brisk, sun-drenched November day, I became a “point of light.” Along with three of my colleagues at 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 more than 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 activities.
People’s generosity staggered me almost as much as the race itself. Yet, the exhilaration I felt was tempered by a realization that 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 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 that should not rest on the aching feet of a few middle-age 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 that 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 that 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 Jr. shared his dream that black 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 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 titled “Education by ZIP Code,” Mike Barnicle, columnist for The Boston Globe, 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 in the New York City Marathon. I hope their dreams are still standing as they cross the finish line.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 1984 edition of Education Week as Do The Right Thing