Orfield Report Praises Boston Transfer Program

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In a new report on a program that enables minority students from Boston to attend suburban schools, Harvard University researchers argue that such voluntary transfer programs are an important tool for helping bridge the nation's racial divide.

The report released late last month by desegregation researcher Gary Orfield is based on surveys of 2,400 Boston parents involved in the state-funded program, and a smaller sampling of city students attending three suburban high schools.

Gary Orfield

The surveys found that while both groups saw room for improvement, they generally viewed the 34-year-old program as a successful means of gaining access to a higher-caliber education. The parents gave high marks to the suburban teachers and said their children did not encounter serious racial discrimination.

"It really shows that where there is an opportunity to get high-quality education in a middle-class setting, there's an absolutely tremendous demand for that kind of integration," said Mr. Orfield, a leading advocate of court-ordered desegregation who wrote the report with several Harvard graduate students.

The surveys were conducted at the invitation of the nonprofit corporation that recruits students for the program--the Metropolitan Council on Educational Opportunities Inc., or METCO.

Critics denounced the report as another example of Mr. Orfield's penchant for wrapping advocacy in the cloak of academia. ("Separate and Unequal," Sept. 28, 1994.)

"This is not the work of a social scientist; it's the work of a publicist for METCO," said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Massachusetts state school board and the co-author of a recent book on race relations.

Besides praising METCO, the survey cast the Boston public schools in an unfavorable light, a result Mr. Orfield said was inadvertent. Only one-fourth of the parents surveyed said their children would attend regular Boston schools if the transfer option were no longer available, while another quarter said they would seek admission to public specialty schools in the city. Half said they would turn to private or parochial schooling, and one in five said they would leave the city.

Moreover, nearly two-thirds did not specify a particular suburban school when applying. "Many parents said that they were willing to transfer their child to any available suburban METCO district," the report says.

City Schools Defended

Boston Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant urged parents last week to "come and visit and see firsthand the kind of changes that are taking place in Boston public schools" thanks to a standards-based reform plan launched last year. "I suspect a number of parents are basing their judgments on old information," he said.

Through METCO, roughly 3,200 students attend public schools in 36 suburban districts. Until 1995, all the participants were black. After the state directed program officials to include other minority groups, the program has enrolled small numbers of Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

About 12,500 students are on a waiting list for spaces in suburban schools. A quarter of the parents surveyed said their children had been on the list since before they were a year old.

METCO officials say the waiting list stems in part from state funding decisions. Participation is down from a peak of about 3,500 students, they say, in part because the program budget has remained at $12 million since the late 1980s.

Teachers Rated Highly

Jeffrey M. Young, the superintendent in the affluent suburb of Lexington, said funding and a lack of space were the main factors in his district's decision to freeze the number of METCO transfer students at around 288 for years. Still, he praised the program.

"It's equally good for the Lexington students," he said. "The lessons they can learn about people who look different from themselves are enormous."

In the Harvard survey, nearly 73 percent of parents cited academics as the most important reason for enrolling in the suburbs. Seventy-nine percent rated their children's teachers as excellent or good. Fewer than 19 percent reported having problems with those teachers, and less than 1 percent said those problems were serious.

Similarly, only a small percentage of parents said their children faced serious racial discrimination in their suburban schools. Students themselves were slightly more likely to cite such discrimination.

Ms. Thernstrom argued that the positive assessments were to be expected. "You show me a voluntary program in this country in which people choose to stay that they don't like," she said. "That whole notion is utterly ridiculous."

She advocates eliminating race-conscious school policies and the state racial-balance law under which the METCO system is funded.

Mr. Orfield, on the other hand, said the program should be expanded. He argued that its popularity showed that many African-Americans remain keenly interested in having their children attend integrated schools.

The report, he added, was not meant to be a thorough assessment of the program, and he called on the state to conduct a full-blown study. "Education policy is an arena in which there are waves of fads, fashionable ideas, and sound bites, but very few policies which have the power to sustain strong support and demand," Mr. Orfield wrote. "It deserves our serious effort to understand it fully."

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