METCO and its Impact on Newton Finances

There has been much discussion of late regarding whether the elimination of the 40 year old METCO program will save Newton money. I have spent considerable time studying this question, and believe that the challenge of understanding the financial impact of METCO on NPS is hampered by a lack of complete information.

Without offering a certain answer, I offer a few more points of consideration:

First, it is easy to successfully make the “incremental cost” case at the elementary school level, where a principal can request the placement of a METCO student into an under-enrolled classroom (whatever that means this year, as class size frameworks may disappear). An 18th child may represent nothing more than the cost of a chair and desk, a hundred dollars of so in books and school supplies, and, well, that could be it. This concept is analogous to “filling in the cracks”.

What we don’t know is the impact on the SPED budget; the available figures show that METCO students access Newton SPED services at more than twice the rate of resident students (“37% in 2007 for METCO compared to 17% for Newton as a whole, including the METCO students” – CAG report on School Cost Structure, p. 45), but they don’t show a breakdown by level-of-service. At best, we know that METCO students are not hitting the highest cost category, out-of-district placement, since METCO is a racial integration program and out-placed students by definition are not integrated into the general classroom. Receiving districts are required to take students regardless of SPED service need, except for those in need of outplacement.

Arguably, filling in the cracks doesn’t happen by the time a student reaches high school. Why? Because arguably there are no cracks. Students move from classroom to classroom each period of the day, and if NPS guidelines are followed, under-enrolled classes are canceled. Consider that each high school has about 60 METCO enrollees. Depending on class size, this represents 2-3 additional classrooms and classroom teachers per high school. Six teachers at an average salary of $70k, along with the cost of their benefits and the staff to support them come at, say, $100k each or $600k in total. This is less than the $940k ($2,300 per student) that comes as a grant to Newton from the state in excess of the cost for transportation and administration. The CAG’s cost analysis must have identified other expenses that eat up the remainder of the excess, as their analysis suggests a total cost to Newton of about $50k per year.

How reasonable is the incremental cost argument? There are some (most publicly Jeff Seideman) who assert that the average rather than the incremental cost of every child must be considered, and that each METCO student costs Newton $14,500 minus their grant. This would put the cost of METCO at around $5 million per year. Jeff makes a pretty rational argument although I’m not personally convinced. So does METCO cost Newton $50k or $5 million per year? The higher figure includes its SPED impact, while the lower one cannot, since METCO student use of SPED services has not been determined. At least it has not been publicly presented.

Then there is the impact on classroom dynamics and learning at the elementary level. How does one balance the positives of an integrated classroom (the traditional position of Newton educators and many of its citizens) with an increase in class size? This is an important discussion to continue, although it is not the topic of this piece of writing.

From a purely financial perspective, the outright cancellation of METCO next year would cost Newton $940k from the state, a figure offset by the decrease in the cost of our SPED program. If one assumes the average per pupil cost of SPED services and assigns this to each METCO student who utilizes them, I calculate a net savings to the City of $1.8 million annually. But if we look at the incremental cost, which for the first few years is the only cost that would be part of our budget reality, our net savings must be much closer to zero. It might even be negative. The only way we can learn more is to work with real figures about the level of SPED services utilized by our METCO students.

Finally, even if I were convinced that Newton should stop participating in the METCO program, I could not justify removing kids who are already a part of our school community. If there is relative consensus on this point within our City, the total budget impact would not be realized for 12 years. Under this scenario, canceling our METCO participation would not have a meaningful budget impact for many years, if at all.