Forward to the Past?

Issues of segregation, insufficient funding, and hurried decision-making envelop Milwaukee's proposal to return to neighborhood schools.

By Bob Peterson and Larry Miller

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, Milwaukee’s African-American community won the legal right to send their children to public schools from which they had historically been excluded. This year, major policy turn-around – known as the Neighborhood Schools Initiative (NSI) – threatens to increase racial isolation in those same schools, with unclear effects on the educational quality and choices offered students of color.

The setting for the return to neighborhood schools was established during the desegregation plan of 25 years ago. Any analysis of the current Neighborhood Schools Initiative is incomplete without an understanding of that history.

“People became obsessed with busing with little understanding of what busing is really about,” said Tony Baez, Vice-President of Academic Affairs at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and a long-time community activist. “The fact is they’ve gotten history all confused. When Milwaukee was ordered to desegregate in 1976, Milwaukee was a city in apartheid. They had to desegregate. Anybody who denies that is a fool.”

In the late 1970s, when federal courts ordered Milwaukee’s public schools to desegregate, city and school-board officials – virtually all of whom were white – refused to endorse community proposals for a desegregation plan that treated whites and Blacks equally. In particular, many community people had argued for grouping schools in clusters to minimize the distance children would need to travel to attend a desegregated school and to prevent widespread busing of students in all different directions and all parts of town. Under the plan, largely white schools would have been paired with largely Black schools, and there would have been relatively equal busing.

Instead, due largely to allay fears of white riots such as those in Boston during its desegregation, officials adopted a plan under which the burden of busing fell most heavily on African-American children. The school board adopted a so-called “voluntary busing”plan, which meant voluntary busing for white children and mandatory busing for Blacks living in overcrowded neighborhoods. (Busing was an element in all desegregation plans because of the city’s severe segregation; the city remains one of the most segregated in the country.)

Twenty-five years ago, one of the central arguments of desegregation proponents was that only through desegregation would people of color have access to the same resources as whites. Despite the calls in NSI for a return to “neighborhood-rich” schools, there is little indication of how such schools or neighborhoods will actually become “rich” in terms of resources – especially if one compares MPS neighborhood schools to the neighborhood schools in the predominately white and affluent suburbs.


While avoiding white riots, Milwaukee’s public schools experienced white flight. Tens of thousands of whites left Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), either to the overwhelmingly white suburbs or to private, mostly Catholic city schools. As a result, from 1978 to 1999 the white student population in MPS shrank from 60% of the student body to 19%.

The decreasing number of whites in MPS fueled arguments that desegregation wasn’t really possible and that the amount of money spent on busing – nearly $60 million a year – was not money well spent in an era when school budgets are being squeezed. Many in the Black community also grew tired of bearing the burden of busing.

At the same time, Mayor John Norquist argued that desegregation was a failed policy and, borrowing a phrase from the arch-segregationists of the 1960s, called it “social engineering.” (Norquist has also embarked on an ambitious plan of revitalizing downtown by encouraging residential development in the area. One catch: The middle-and upper-middle income white residents who are key to the plan were not perceived as willing to attend MPS schools.)

Against this backdrop, city and school board powerbrokers convinced the Wisconsin Legislature last year to pass the Neighborhood School Initiative (NSI). The plan authorizes MPS to borrow up to $170 million in state funds to reduce busing and create more room for students in overcrowded neighborhoods. The money saved from reduced busing is to be used to pay off the debt.

The school board, which was required to present a plan to the legislature by September 2000, decided in August to request only $98.4 million. The money can be used solely for capital expenditures and must be paid back with interest. It is assumed that the legislature will act on the school board’s plan so that implementation can begin with the 2001-02 school year.


The neighborhood schools plan calls for creating 11,000 new neighborhood “seats” by changing school attendance boundaries, constructing six new schools, building 19 additions onto current schools, renovating 15 schools, and converting 32 elementary schools to K-8 schools. By creating more “seats” in overcrowded neighborhoods, more children will have the option of attending their neighborhood schools rather than being bused to school.

Using the rhetoric of “neighborhood schools,” the proponents of the NSI have played upon the legitimate, long-standing frustrations in the African-American community with unequal busing.

In this era of “choice,” advocates of the neighborhood schools plan also use the rhetoric of increased choice. But choices will not increase equally. In a move seen as further privileging affluent families, NSI will allow a child to attend a school in any part of the city – as long as there is room and as long as the family can provide transportation. In essence, those families that can provide their own transportation to a school will have far greater choices. Some estimates are that as many as 40% of the households in the central city do not own cars.

Added to this is the problem of student mobility – mainly due to the lack of affordable housing for poor people. While the neighborhood school plan allows students who move to complete the school year in the school they attend, no provisions are made for subsequent years. High mobility not only has a negative impact on students who must change schools from year to year, but also makes it difficult for schools with high student turnover.

Another concern is that the NSI plan is establishing a number of specialty schools – popular schools around certain themes or missions, such as a Montesorri schools – in predominantly white neighborhoods. As a result, certain white neighborhoods will likely have more “choices.”

The neighborhood school plan seems to fit (almost too conveniently) with the long-standing desires of some city leaders to again make the city “safe” for white people by gentrifying certain neighborhoods and by reestablishing neighborhood schools in virtually all-white neighborhoods. Furthermore, the NSI plan coincides with a growing move to establish entrance requirements at select middle and high schools. While few openly talk about the combined result of neighborhood elementary schools and these entrance requirements, the effect is clear: Middle-class and white families will rest easy, knowing that their children will be able to attend increasingly segregated neighborhood elementary schools and middle and high schools where entrance requirements will keep out what one school board member has referred to as “the floaters.”


Both the plan and the process used to develop it spurred considerable controversy – although city media seemed to do their best to ignore it.

A major church-based community organization, Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope (MICAH), charges that the plan “seems to create and intensify racial and economic segregation.” A coalition including MICAH, the Milwaukee Council of PTAs, Wisconsin Citizen Action, Parents United for Public Schools, the Milwaukee Citywide Bilingual Bicultural Advisory Committee, and the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future called the plan “unfair, underfunded, unsafe, and too fast.”

Criticisms of the plan fall into four main areas: the process by which it was adopted, the impact on racial isolation, the effects on special needs students, and the financial burden it will place on the district.

MPS spent considerable time and money in developing the plan, including over $562,000 spent on consultants. District officials from the superintendent on down spent thousands of hours on the plan, holding several hundred public hearings and community meetings, and conducting telephone and face-to-face surveys. The initial outreach was by far the most extensive the district has ever conducted.

At the same time, for many months details of the plan were murky – and everyone knew the devil would be in the details. The full proposal was finally released during the middle of summer amid calls that it had to be adopted too quickly.

At several public hearings late in August and at a state legislative hearing on Sept. 8, speakers repeatedly criticized the Milwaukee School Board for acting on the final NSI plan only 10 days after it was released to the public.

Critics don’t disagree that the initial outreach had a democratic character. But the essence of democracy is debating actual policy proposals. And that debate was sorely lacking.

The lack of debate on the final plan led members of the Black and Hispanic Legislative Caucus to call for a delay in state approval of the plan. The caucus members noted in a letter to the State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee that an “atmosphere of haste undermines the credibility of the process, which subsequently risks the full understanding and confidence of the public.”

The insufficient time and debate were particularly annoying to the staff and parents of some schools that were slated to be moved. (While the NSI calls for no actual school closings, some programs are being moved so whole school populations will have to be relocated.)

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism of the plan is its call for what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel dubbed “the city’s U-turn toward neighborhood schools.”

A U-turn is exactly what many fear.

Before the federal courts ordered the desegregation of the Milwaukee Public Schools in 1976, MPS did everything in its power to racially isolate children of color, including gerrymandering boundaries and providing “intact” busing of Black children so that they remained segregated together in apartheid-type environments.

MICAH charged that “though we are not in a position to judge motives, it seems clear that the [current NSI] plan is designed to created’white’ schools, ‘Black’ schools and ‘Hispanic” schools.'” They also note that “five citywide specialty schools that are found in neighborhoods that are predominantly made up of people of color will be converted to neighborhoods schools, not ‘neighborhood specialty schools.’ At the same time, three of the four new neighborhoods chools that are to be created are located in predominantly Caucasian neighborhoods” and that the “two new Montessori schools are also located in white neighborhoods.”

A computer search by Rethinking Schools of the entire 325-page document showed that the words “racism,” “desegregation,” and “discrimination” do not appear even once. The words “segregation” and “multiracial” each appear once and “integration” appears four times. Interestingly, these and similar words like “diversity” can be found in the section of the plan that outlines “general concerns” that were “consistently” repeated” at community informational meetings.”

One of the consistent arguments of NSI proponents is that there are no longer enough white students in MPS to make desegregation meaningful. This argument is faulty for two reasons. First, while the white population has declined, there are still 20,000 white students in the district – a sizable number. Furthermore, the argument assumes that racial integration can only occur if whites are present and ignores the fact that Latinos and Asian-Americans are a fast-growing population within MPS. The NSI plan, rather than valuing multiracial diversity, instead creates not only predominantly white schools but predominantly African-American and predominantly Latino schools.

Such community concerns and lack of racial analysis did not deter Board President Thompson from publicly calling the neighborhood schools plan “the last best chance to achieve true integration” in the city.


How will the NSI affect the quality of education for children with special needs? At a time when MPS is coming under increasing pressure to improve the quality of special education services,the NSI proposal is vague. The proposal says NSI “intends to provide appropriate special education and related services for students with disabilities at more neighborhood schools in the areas oft he city where the student reside.”

While such an idea has a common sense appeal, some of the NSI’s own statistical analyses portend a gloomy picture. According to the NSI proposal, “60 percent of the 16,000 students with disabilities live in the seven neighborhood clusters that formed the basis of the neighborhood schools project group’s analysis, but only 16 percent of these students attend school at the attendance area schools in those clusters.” Given that those seven clusters are concentrated in economically depressed neighborhoods, a key concern is that encouraging disabled students to attend their neighborhood schools will lead to a high concentration of disabled children in schools in neighborhoods that are already in crisis.

Current MPS practice is to try to have all schools with a special education student population of 10 percent to 15 percent of the overall student body – roughly in line with the overall percentage of special education students in the district.

Questions have also been raised about the fiscal impact of the neighborhood schools plan.

One of the ways the MPS administration sold the NSI plan to the public is that it promised the plan would do something for everyone – including school safety, before and after school programs, lower class sizes, and full-day programs for K4 and K5. The administration has also said NSI will replicate successful specialty programs, which generally cost more. The catch is, the NSI plan is designed only to pay for capital expenditures. Where will the money come from for additional programs?

The administration’s linking of smaller classes and NSI is particularly disingenuous. The money to hire staff and reduce class sizes in the K-3 grades in Milwaukee has specifically come from a separately funded state program and has nothing to do with NSI.

One fear is that the financial shortfalls in the NSI plan will come out of further budget cuts within MPS. Barbara Sprewer-Ford, an MPS parent who spoke at one of the August hearings, described as “double talk” the administration’s claim that there was enough money to fulfill all the claims linked to NSI. She reminded the school board that just a few months earlier, hundreds of parents had mobilized against the $32 million deficit and that parents would do it again if necessary. The crowd of 150 people gave her a standing ovation.

Baez was even more to the point. He told Rethinking Schools that while he generally supports the concepts behind the plan, he sees no reason to think that the quality of education in the new and increasingly segregated schools will be any better than it has been in previously racially isolated schools. “We are letting suburban Milwaukee totally off the hook,” he said. “If we were to put as much effort into changing the state funding formula as the district staff and certain members of the community put into the NSI, we would succeed in securing the necessary resources for the children of Milwaukee.”

For an analysis of the segregation in MPS that engendered the court suit, see Bob Peterson’s article, “Neighborhood Schools, Busing, and the Struggle for Equality” in Rethinking Schools, Vol. 12, #3.

Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney, and LarryMiller teaches social studies at Metro High School. They are botheditors of Rethinking Schools.