An Unsettling Settlement

After eleven weeks of painstaking testimony the settlement of Milwaukee’s metropolitan desegregation suit is anticlimactic. Expert witnesses documented the conscious and insidious forms of discrimination practiced by federal, state, and local governmental agencies, school districts, and private real estate firms. The trial clearly showed why Milwaukee today has the less than honorable distinction of being the second most segregated metropolitan area in the nation, only outdone by Gary, Indiana.

The Milwaukee School Board, after bringing suit against 24 suburbs and the state of Wisconsin, has agreed to an out-of-court settlement with 20 of the suburbs, the NAACP and Wisconsin. The essential ingredient of the metropolitan settlement is the expansion of Chapter 220, the state legislation which has given tens of millions of dollars to both the city and the suburbs for busing students for desegregation. 

One positive aspect of the settlement is that suburbs will no longer be permitted to opt out of Chapter 220 – denying minorities the right to transfer to “suburban schools. Minority students will finally have the right to go to schools in all  the surrounding suburbs, where many minority families have been unable to live because of housing, and employment discrimination. We support the right of minority students to go to these schools, as well as their right to equal, multicultural, anti-racist instruction in such schools.

As a long range social policy, however, reliance on the “voluntary” 220 program makes even less sense than the city’s decade old desegregation plan. 

Instead of pairing suburban and city schools together to ensure equal busing, blacks will be encouraged through a ”contracted marketing services agency” to go to school in the suburbs. This “shotgun” approach to busing, which, under the city plan sent pupils residing in one black neighborhood school district to over 100 different schools, will now become double-barreled with even more blacks going longer distances to more destinations. Because children from the same black neighborhood will be dispersed long distances to schools throughout the county, parents will find it even more difficult to influence school policy, attend PTA meetings, and participate in teacher-parent conferences. The costs of the busing alone are estimated to be as high $50 million per year and may go even higher.

Unequal Busing

The Agreement’s call for creation of even more MPS “specialty” schools, raises the possibility that additional inner-city sites will be chosen, forcing more black families to “volunteer’* to be bused. Eleven years ago the evidence of segregation within the schools of the city of Milwaukee was overwhelming. But Judge Reynolds, the Milwaukee School Board, and the MPS administration ignored the pairing and clustering proposals of the community-based Committee of 100 and instead scattered black students in an irrational manner to schools in white neighborhoods.

Between 1976 and 1978 more than 20,000 neighborhood seats were eliminated in black community schools (5,000 by school closings, 7,000 by lowering limits on enrollments and 8,000 by changing neighborhood schools to specialty schools). These black students were given the “option” of “volunteering” to go to formerly all-white schools; MPS created a public relations system of smoke and mirrors to conceal the true nature of Milwaukee’s so-called “voluntary” plan. The result, as we pointed out in our last issue (Vol. 1, No.3), is that 88% of the students bused for desegregation are black.

Today the evidence is again overwhelming. And once again the Milwaukee School Board, under the guidance of Federal Judge Curran, has failed to come up with an equal and rational desegregation plan.

The bottom line in both cases is that while the decision makers are willing to bus black students — even involuntarily, they-steadfastly refuse to demand the same from white families. Blacks, according to the powers that be, must bear the burden of desegregation — eleven years ago and today.

Specialty Slots for Suburban Children

More, one-way busing will undoubtedly occur because a massive influx of white students from the suburbs is not likely. Those suburban whites who do come will attend only “specialty schools, specialty programs, alternative programs and citywide schools” according to the settlement The settlement orders MPS to set aside 10% of its specialty school slots for white suburban students, a policy which has been in effect for some time. Some parents in the city have expressed outrage thaj the suburban whites who choose to be bused into the city take seats away from city children at the already over-subscribed specialty schools. The settlement allows the suburban whites, often times more affluent, to continue to live in their all white suburbs, and yet get the city’s very best in education. Thus class privilege, which already plays a role in access to specialty schools, is reinforced in the plan.

During the trial there was discussion of the way in which some suburbs already participating in the 220 transfer program were screening potential minority students and admitting only selected students. Despite some news reports that screening is not allowed under the new settlement. Section IV B spears to offer loopholes by listing seven reasons why students can be excluded, including such things as previous poor attendance, special education referral or failure to fill out their data sheet properly.

Other areas of the settlement that are troublesome are those relating to hiring of minorities and housing. In the settlement the districts agree to “make a good faith effort to seek and hire minority applicants for employment by adopting a minority recruitment plan…” A minority recruitment office and a special program to encourage minorities to be trained as teachers are to be established, and yet the settlement specifically removes any obligation for the districts to fund the training program, and puts no goals or teeth in the minority hiring program. 

Toward Desegregated Housing: A Drop in the Bucket

The housing provision is ludicrous in the face of the intense housing segregation in the Milwaukee area. The settlement establishes a “housing, counseling and recruitment center,” a “loan assistance program” and a “low income housing credit program.” The most substantive of these proposals is the mortgage assistance program which will give people low interest rates, fewer points, etc. when buying a house in a neighborhood that would enhance integration. The $5,000,000 figure included in the settlement sounds substantial, but spread over a five year period and put towards Milwaukee-area homes that average $74,000, this would only help 12 minority families buy houses in the suburbs each year. Equally unfortunate, pressure from some of the suburban school boards prevented the Milwaukee Metropolitan Fair Housing Council, an organization with a proven history of fighting racism, from being designated as the organization to coordinate housing matters.

The settlement creates the position of an ombudsperson who is to have “advisory capacity” to a,“coordinating council.” The council will be made up of representatives from each of the 24 suburban districts and a city delegation of equal number appointed by MPS and the NAACP. Marion McEvilly, a black former member of the Milwaukee School Board and long time supporter of integration, is designated as the first ombudsperson. While the choice of McEvilly appears to be a good one, we are doubtful if either the ombudsperson or the coordinating council will have much authority beyond recommending ideas and collecting data.

For example, one provision in the agreement states that “Districts and MPS shall each periodically conduct a review of their own curricula (sic) recognizing the importance of a multicultural and non biased curriculum,” Such periodic reviews, if done properly, could be a step forward in overcoming die gross weaknesses in much of the material currently in use, and yet neither the ombudsperson or coordinating council has any audiority to see that such a review takes place, much less see that it is done well and acted upon once completed. 

Especially disappointing is Section XI of the settlement where the School Board and the NAACP agree to dismiss the suit with prejudice, which prohibits them from “assist[ing] any other person… to commence or maintain any claim against [the suburban] Districts that is within the subject matter of the… complaints.” But they are not only permanently giving up their right to legally pressure the suburbs on these issues, they are agreeing not to “voluntarily provide to any person… any materials or documents obtained or “prepared in the-lawsuit….”

A final concern is that the settlement directs the Milwaukee Public Schools but not the suburban districts to “address the recommendations of the Study Commission on the Quality of Education in Metropolitan Milwaukee Public Schools” and sets up a special School Improvement Review Advisory Committee which include the mayor and county executive to oversee the progress in this area. Indeed, much improvement is needed in the Milwaukee Public Schools and certain of the Commission’s recommendations should be implemented. But it is rather curious that the same isn’t applied to the suburbs. Those school systems have for years maintained a virtually all white segregated staff — in 1980 only 11 of 2,500 employees at all levels were minorities — which has to raise serious questions about the education provided to suburban children.

One of the main intentions of the original proponents of this suit was to use it to pressure the state legislature to combine city and suburban school systems and redistrict them into integrated wedged-shaped districts.

Community Members Pose Alternatives

In the past decade a number of alternative proposals have been offered in an attempt to deal with continuing problems of segregation and poor quality education. Redistricting proposals have been put forth by a number of groups, including the Milwaukee Integration Research Center and the Sherman Park Community Association. Proponents say such plans would genuinely integrate all metropolitan schools, equalize busing, create smaller political units that parents might have more influence over, and the break up of the MPS Vliet Street bureaucracy. The negative side of such proposals lies in the likelihood that the black and Hispanic communities would become so dispersed among five or six smaller districts that their potential political power would be further compromised.

Howard Fuller, Assemblyperson Polly Williams and others have advocated focusing on quality education in Milwaukee schools. They point out that quality education can take place in all black or Hispanic schools and contend that the tens of millions of dollars now spent on busing could be better spent on providing educational services to Milwaukee’s children. Opponents to this approach charge it might “resegregate” the schools and that minority children would be short changed if they didn’t go to school in an integrated setting.

These types of proposals have been rejected by the lawyers and school boards’ negotiators. We in Rethinking Schools feel it is time for debate of these matters to be taken out of the hands of the lawyers and taken up by the community. Recent proposals for a separate school district in the neighborhood surrounding North Division and a new redistricting plan that would include a predominantly black district deserve serious discussion.

The metropolitan desegregation suit was important in documenting the history of racism and discrimination endemic to our nation’s and city’s past. Unfortunately the settlement in many ways was an accommodation to the very racism that the suit was intended to address.

Milwaukee’s children deserve better.