October 01, 2001 6 min read
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THE OTHER BOSTON BUSING STORY: What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line, by Susan E. Eaton. (Yale University Press, 320 pages, $26.95.)

In 1975, a new education consortium, supported by the state of Massachusetts, began busing black children from inner-city Boston to predominantly white schools in the suburbs. From the start, this desegregation program, run by the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or METCO, was completely voluntary. As a result, it avoided the rancor and controversy that plagued Boston’s infamous court-ordered busing plan. Now more than 25 years old, the program has a waiting list nearly 13,000 names long, many placed there by parents before their children’s first birthdays.

This fascinating book looks at the long-term impact the METCO program has had on African Americans who rode the buses as kids. A researcher at Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, Eaton interviewed 65 METCO alumni—4,300 have graduated from the program since its inception—about their experiences in the suburban schools and their lives since then.

Many activists and educators nowadays reject the very idea of school desegregation, saying it smacks of racial condescension. Policymakers, they argue, should strive to improve neglected inner-city schools rather than arrange for African American parents to send their kids to white ones. Eaton largely steers clear of this debate. Indeed, her study is important because she focuses on desegregation outside the lens of ideology.

Most of Eaton’s interviewees characterize their years in the program as difficult ones. Although few encountered what they describe as overt racism in the suburban schools, many say they frequently had a sense of “being out of place.” White teachers and students simply assumed they were impoverished kids from violence-ridden slums. And they were perceived just as negatively in their own neighborhoods. Old friends accused them of “acting white” and teased them for doing homework and going to bed early.

In the classroom, they often felt intimidated and under intense pressure to perform. “People were watching you to see what black kids could do, not what you could do,” one former METCO participant recalls.

Yet, at the same time, race was a taboo topic among the white teachers and students. Few discussions went beyond the “slavery was bad” and “Martin Luther King was good” variety, explains Eaton. Although teachers may have thought they were protecting their black students, this forced silence had the unintended effect of making many feel “invisible.”

Despite such drawbacks, all but four of the 65 adults conclude that they would repeat the METCO experience. They benefited, not only from the rigorous academic curricula, but also from their schools’ supportservices and networks— what one woman calls “white people’s affirmative action.” Counselors, for example, made sure that students took the SATs and filed their college applications on time. What’s more, college admissions official—and, later, employers—responded positively to their schools’ stellar reputations.

Many who talked to Eaton have become leaders in their workplaces, valued for their abilities to get along with blacks and whites alike. “You are ahead of everyone else on [the race] issue, even though you feel confused inside about it,” one woman says. “You’re forced in METCO to think stuff through. You figure out how to handle stuff.”

For the most part, Eaton reserves judgment on the value of the METCO effort—and desegregation itself. But she does state that, for all the practice’s benefits, “bouncing between white and black worlds often made the young black students feel they didn’t truly belong in either one.” Still, it would be hard to call the program anything but a success. Almost all the former participants now lead fulfilling lives with satisfying careers and families and a strong commitment to their communities.

“At least METCO is something,” says one woman hoping to enroll her own children in the program. “It goes in that direction of bringing together instead of going apart.”

CRUSADE IN THE CLASSROOM: How George W. Bush’s Education Reforms Will Affect Your Children, Our Schools,by Douglas B. Reeves. (Kaplan, 144 pages, $8.) As Reeves describes it here, President Bush’s education plan sounds like an elixir for all that ails our nation’s schools. States will test students each year so that parents can tell how well their children and schools are performing. Because faculties will calibrate their teaching to explicit academic standards, students will know exactly what is expected of them. And education options will abound, so parents dissatisfied with one school will be able to choose another. Standards, testing, accountability, and choice—these, Reeves announces, are “the broad themes” of the Bush package and precisely what America needs.

But many of the author’s arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, he endorses tough standards for kids but ignores the fact that such standards conflict with school choice. Parents, after all, won’t have many options if every school is required to pursue the same agenda. Elsewhere, Reeves intimates that most teachers resent the standardization movement because of the emphasis it places on the basics. But teaching the basics isn’t what teachers resent; they simply don’t want standards to dictate exactly what and how they must teach.

In the end, Reeves’ premise—namely that the president’s education reforms will transform America’s schools—is nothing short of hyperbole. After all, education in this country is still very much a local matter. It is disingenuous to argue that the impetus for dramatic improvement can come from politicians and policymakers working “inside the beltway.”

SCHOOLS, VOUCHERS, AND THE AMERICAN PUBLIC,by Terry M. Moe. (Brookings, 410 pages, $29.95.) Last year, after large-scale school voucher initiatives in Michigan and California were shot down at the polls, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, pronounced the voucher movement dead. But Moe, a political scientist at Stanford University, argues in this book that it was the sweeping nature of the two state initiatives that sealed their doom, not vouchers themselves. His exhaustive national survey of attitudes toward vouchers, detailed here, suggests that an overwhelming majority of Americans would support limited programs, but only if they were aimed at the most disadvantaged children. Voucher advocates must emphasize education equity, he argues, not free market competition.

Moe’s book contains many surprising findings. Perhaps most astounding is his assertion that 65 percent of those polled had never heard of vouchers. Once the concept was explained to them, though, they voiced their approval in a big way, with nearly 80 percent of respondents agreeing that disadvantaged families should be allowed to spend state voucher money on schools of their choice, including religious ones. Still, Moe found that Americans overwhelmingly believe that states would need to regulate all schools that accepted vouchers—a potentially ominous finding for those “independent” private schools hoping to cash in on voucher dollars.

As Moe sees it, the political tide is changing. With African Americans and Hispanics now among the biggest voucher supporters, Democrats, who have long opposed funneling public funds to private schools, will have to reassess their positions on the issue or risk alienating constituents. The bottom line, Moe concludes, is that the debate over vouchers is not going away, regardless of what teachers’ unions want and say.

—David Ruenzel


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