Neighborhood Schools, Busing, and the Struggle for Equality

By Bob Peterson

Criticism of school busing is nothing new. Nor is support for neighborhood schools. So it wasn’t surprising when the Milwaukee Board of School Directors ordered a return to neighborhood schools last fall and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson ordered a 10% reduction in Milwaukee busing in his January State of the State speech.

What would be surprising is if such policy changes were implemented equitably without a negative impact on the African-American students who make up 61% of Milwaukee’s public school students. Given the extensive residential segregation in Milwaukee and the city’s historical approach to busing and neighborhood schools — which placed an unfair burden on the Black community — there is ample reason for concern.
As the School Board debates implementation of its new policies, it faces three key challenges:

  • How to ensure that a return to neighborhood schools does not deprive African-American students of school facilities or academic programming on par with what is available at citywide specialty schools and schools with high percentages of white students.
  • How to mesh its goal of neighborhood schools and reduced busing with board policies, in particular parental choice, that depend on busing. (Only 20% of all MPS families pick their neighborhood school as their first choice.)
  • How to find the political courage to demand that the governor, mayor, and other opponents of busing support a school building program to guarantee that there are enough schools in the neighborhoods where children live. An estimated 18,000 students, mostly African Americans, cannot attend a neighborhood school because there are not enough schools where they live.

Hovering over these discussions is the often-unasked question of how much our community values children learning in a racially integrated setting. Many educators believe that integrated classrooms better prepare students for life in a multiracial society. Is a return to neighborhood schools based on sound educational principles or is it a capitulation to long-standing resistance by many in the white community to integrated schools in which whites might be a minority?

Educational Apartheid

Given the way Milwaukee chose to implement desegregation, over the years the cost of busing has skyrocketed. The total for 1997 was over $53 million, 7.6% of MPS’s budget. Nearly all of this money comes from the state.

No MPS students, nor many of their parents and teachers, were even alive when the first busing controversy rolled into town some 40 years ago. The controversy — rooted in Milwaukee’s segregated housing patterns — began when the school district used busing to alleviate overcrowding in schools but confined Black students to certain schools.

Overcrowding started in the 1950s and 1960s as the district faced population pressures both in the central city and the city’s periphery. A large migration of African-American families into the central city, virtually the only place they were permitted to live in the Milwaukee area, engendered the flight of white families to the city’s periphery and suburbs. Further, expressway construction and urban renewal demolished thousands of housing units in the central city. Single-family homes were converted to multiple-family dwellings and the density of children in the area became five times that of other areas in the city, according to William F. Thompson in his book History of Wisconsin, Vol. VI.

To relieve overcrowding during school construction and renovation, the district bused entire classes “intact” to other schools. From 1958-1972, over 36,000 students were bused under this policy. In nine instances, white students were bused to Black schools. But in over 280 instances, Black children were bused to white schools and kept “intact,” i.e., in racially segregated classrooms in the white schools.
The Black students remained officially enrolled in the school in their neighborhood. In some instances, they and their teachers were bused back to their home school for lunch and recess and then shipped back to the white school for afternoon classes. Time spent on the bus each week often equalled one day’s instruction. Although district guidelines limited such “intact” busing to a semester or less, students from some schools were bused intact for up to five years.

The school board used other techniques — which were eventually found to be an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment — to maintain racial segregation. These included student transfer policies which allowed whites to transfer out of integrated schools, the building of new schools in white neighborhoods but not Black ones, and changes in school boundaries.

For example, when large numbers of Black people moved into a previously white neighborhood, the school district changed the neighborhood school boundaries so that the new residential area for Blacks remained with the adjacent, predominantly Black school.
The racist views of the school board were perhaps best summed up by member Lorraine Radtke, who complained that inner-city children “can’t understand our plumbing. You have urination in water bubblers.”

These apartheid-like policies ensured the “containment” of African-American students in inner-city schools. They also dove-tailed with residential segregation and discrimination in employment. Until the 1950s, racially restrictive covenants by government bodies, real estate brokers, and financial institutions prohibited the sale of homes to non-whites in many Milwaukee neighborhoods and suburbs. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that federal and state courts could no longer endorse such covenants, but it was not until three years later that the Wisconsin legislature repealed the state statute which permitted such covenants.

Between 1962 and 1967, the Milwaukee Common Council consistently defeated open housing legislation by votes of 18 to 1. The only dissenter was Vel Phillips, the council’s lone Black member. The Common Council passed a fair housing ordinance in 1968 — but only after thousands of people marched for 200 consecutive days, led by the late James Groppi and the NAACP Youth Council.

Since the 1960s, practices by financial institutions, discrimination on the part of real estate agents, and zoning ordinances of local governments have perpetuated residential segregation. The term “hyper-segregation” is often applied to the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

For instance, a study by USA Today based on the 1990 Census ranked Milwaukee as the seventh most segregated of more than 200 metropolitan areas. Further, a 1995 study by US News and World Report ranked Milwaukee among the 20 worst cities in the country for disparities between banking facilities in white versus mostly minority areas. In terms of jobs, in 1990 Milwaukee had the highest gap between Black and white unemployment rates of any metropolitan area.

School Desegregation

Beginning in the early 1960s, and coinciding with the national civil rights movement, members of the Black community demanded that the school board end school segregation. The school board refused. Its defense was the “preservation of the neighborhood school,” according to Thompson’s History of Wisconsin. The NAACP then unsuccessfully petitioned the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to end state funding of Milwaukee schools unless they were desegregated. In March of 1964 the NAACP, CORE, and others formed MUSIC — the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee. Its purpose was to implement “mass action,” including boycotts, to force the issue.

Half of the students at central city schools participated in the first boycott on May 18, 1964, the 10th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and attended Freedom Schools set up by MUSIC. For two years, sit-ins, picketing, prayer vigils, marches, and more boycotts raised public awareness about segregation and intact busing but failed to move the school board. Finally, in December of 1965, attorney Lloyd Barbee filed a formal desegregation suit in federal court on behalf of 41 Black and white children.

Eleven years later, in 1976, Federal Judge John Reynolds found that the school board’s policy of “containment” and segregation had “intentionally brought about and maintained a dual school system.” At the time of Reynolds’s ruling, 34 % of the Milwaukee’s public school student were Black, 60% white, and 6% Hispanic and “other.” Seventy-three MPS schools were more than 90% white, while 31 schools were more than 90% Black. The school board spent over a million dollars appealing the desegregation decision, making it one of the most expensive school desegregation cases in U.S. history.

One-Way Busing

Milwaukee protests against desegregation never reached the levels of violence of Boston, where buses carrying Black students were met with a hail of rocks and racist insults. But the underlying issues were the same. A few fringe groups in Milwaukee tried unsuccessfully to organize against “forced busing,” which was a code word for keeping Blacks out of all-white schools and neighborhoods. But whites primarily resisted by leaving MPS for either private schools or suburban public schools. Even though there was no mandatory busing of white students, roughly 14,500 white students “one-fifth the total ” left MPS between 1975, one year before the court order, and 1977. By 1980, the number of white students dropped another 14,700, according to MPS enrollment figures. At same time, no overview would be complete without acknowledging that a significant number of whites were involved in the protests against segregation and in efforts to make integration work. As in other cities, the Milwaukee movement was an example of multiracial commitment to equal opportunity for all children.

In late 1975 and early 1976, the school administration organized parents and staff at every school to help develop a desegregation plan. This process culminated in the election of a racially diverse “Committee of 100,” with parent, community and staff representatives. Among other things, the Committee proposed that specific northside schools be “paired and clustered” with specific southside schools, in order to ensure equitable two-way busing of both Black and white students. Then-Superintendent Lee McMurrin, Deputy Superintendent David Bennett, and the school board disagreed. Instead, the school board adopted a “voluntary” integration plan under which families could choose to send their children to any school as long as it promoted integration.

What was voluntary for the white community, however, became involuntary for the Black. The older, inner-city schools were overcrowded to begin with. Further, due to past construction policies that favored schools in white neighborhoods, several inner-city schools were in such dilapidated condition that they were closed. Others were refurbished and opened as citywide specialty schools in an attempt to lure white families to voluntarily bus their children into the inner city. One study found that in the first four years of the desegregation order, school closings displaced over 4,600 Blacks.

The resultant lack of “seats” in Black neighborhood schools forced many Blacks to “choose” to go elsewhere.

Larry Harwell, who at that time led the community group Organization of Organizations, felt the policy of closing inner city schools and opening specialty schools in their place was conscious. “It was part of a deliberate policy to force Blacks out of a section of the city immediately north of downtown in preparation of rebuilding the downtown area for white people,” he recently told Rethinking Schools. “Virtually every Black school in that area was either closed or made into a citywide specialty school and closed to neighborhood residents.”
People also criticized the “shotgun” approach to busing which resulted in children from some inner-city neighborhood attendance areas going to as many as a 100 different schools. The practice continues to this day (see chart, p. 22).

Initially, busing wasn’t viewed as a hardship by many African Americans. A major goal of the civil rights movement had been ensuring access to all schools, and in Milwaukee this finally seemed a reality. Moreover, many Black parents saw their neighborhood schools as inferior, compared to the newer, better-equipped, more spacious schools in the white neighborhoods on the city’s periphery.

By June 1977, the end of the first year of desegregation, things weren’t going so well. Growing numbers in the African-American community were disturbed that for every seven Black students bused for integration, only one white student was bused. Further, the district had done virtually nothing to prepare staff or students in the previously all-white schools for desegregation. The reception that Black students and staff received was at times discriminatory and racist. On the legal front, the federal Court of Appeals had vacated the original desegregation order and remanded it back to Reynolds’s court.

In the fall of 1977, Harwell’s Organization of Organizations led a “Two Way or No Way” campaign and organized a school boycott. Other organizations, including the Coalition for Peaceful Schools, and People United for Integration and Quality Education, also demanded a more equitable desegregation plan.

These demands fell on deaf ears. Superintendent McMurrin and the school board steadfastly refused to pair Black and white schools. The board’s conservative members were emboldened by the Appeals Court decision and hoped that the entire desegregation process could be stopped. The board’s liberal members were worried about subsequent appeals and were unwilling to jeopardize the progress that had been made.

No policy maker had the political will to force white children to attend schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Many African Americans continued, however, to volunteer to go to previously all-white schools. Others, without space at their neighborhood schools, were essentially forced to “volunteer.” And throughout this period Latino educators and parents were organizing and pursuing legal strategies to ensure that the rights and educational needs of Hispanic students were guaranteed in the desegregation process, which defined students only as Black or non-Black.

Finally, as litigation continued and a concern arose that the increasingly conservative U.S. Supreme Court might overturn Reynolds’s decision, the lawyers for the plaintiffs called for an out-of-court settlement. The school board voted 9-6 to participate. The three Black board members opposed the settlement because it left some schools 100% Black; the three arch-conservative members opposed it because they refused to admit to any deliberate segregation.
Despite objections from large sections of the Black community, including the NAACP, Judge Reynolds approved a five-year out-of-court settlement plan in May of 1979. According to one of the original attorneys for the plaintiffs, Irvin Charne, even though the specific court ordered remedy was for only five years, the settlement includes a permanent injunction against intentional segregation by the school board.

Since 1984, the district has voluntarily operated under the settlement’s desegregation guidelines. The portion of the settlement dealing with desegregating the MPS teaching staff was incorporated into the union contract and remains a matter of collective bargaining. The current contract specifies that the percentage of Black teachers in each school should be 5% to 10% above or below the citywide percentage of MPS Black teachers (about 18%), except in the two African-American immersion schools where the percentage of Black teachers can be as high as 35%.

Countervailing Tendencies

Support for busing has declined for reasons beyond problems with one-way busing and white resistance to integration. Within the Black community, there has always been debate about whether integration will lead to quality education for African-Americans. Moreover, even in many desegregated schools there is a continued gap in academic achievement between white and Black students. The demographics of MPS also have changed substantially, making desegregation increasingly difficult (the percentage of white students plummeted from 60% in 1975 to 20% in 1997). Finally, many Black parents have often felt excluded from full participation in their children’s schools, and this exclusion is exacerbated by the long distances between home and school.

An early indication of waning African-American support for integration was the success in 1980 of the Coalition to Save North Division. Led by then-community activist Howard Fuller, the coalition mobilized to demand that the newly constructed North Division remain a neighborhood high school rather than a citywide specialty school, even if it meant keeping the school all Black.
In addition, proponents of the African-American immersion schools have received widespread support in the Black community. This is yet another indication of the widespread conviction among African-Americans that their children are not necessarily being well served in integrated schools and that quality education can be offered in an all-Black setting.

At the same time, it would be one-sided not to recognize that as further possibilities for integration became available, thousands seized the opportunity. As a result of a court suit initiated in 1984 by MPS and the NAACP against 24 Milwaukee suburbs, the Chapter 220 desegregation program was greatly expanded and thousands of students of color transferred to suburban schools. In 1994, when the program was threatened with extinction, significant sections of the Black community came to its defense. This school year, 5,100 MPS students of color attend suburban schools under Chapter 220; there was no room for an additional 3,800 who also wanted to participate.

Less Busing or More Choice?

Two other policy priorities — parental choice and low property taxes — have contributed to the extensive busing in Milwaukee. Both are favored by key policy makers, including Gov. Thompson and Mayor John Norquist.

Giving parents their first choice in schools obviously entails busing if their choice isn’t their neighborhood school. In fact, only one-fifth of MPS students list a neighborhood school as their first choice during the annual school selection process, according to MPS officials.
Around 63% of all MPS students take a bus to school, either yellow school buses or Milwaukee County buses. According to district figures, 69% (about 44,000 students) travel to accommodate school choice. Of the rest, 24% are bused to relieve overcrowding and 7% are Exceptional Education students who require special services.
The administration has tried to reduce busing over the years. For example, in 1991 it divided the city’s elementary schools into five regions. It limited parents to choosing among the 20 or so schools in the region, including the neighborhood school, or the 26 citywide specialty schools.

A current proposal would further limit school choice to either the neighborhood school (if it is not overcrowded) or a citywide specialty school. Families who live in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools — virtually all in the predominantly Black near northside and northwest side, or the predominantly Latino near south side — will have a cluster of four other schools to choose from. The changes would be phased in so that no student would be forced to leave their current school.
Such changes will obviously reduce busing. What is not so obvious is that those Black and Latino students living in the overcrowded neighborhoods will still not have the fundamental choice that virtually all white students will have: to attend their neighborhood school. There aren’t enough schools.

As Jeanette Mitchell, former school board president and now a program officer at the Bader Foundation, said: “I support neighborhood schools, but I don’t see how we can do it unless we build more schools where the children live.”

Bottom Line: More Buildings

The desire to hold down property taxes has made it almost impossible to build enough schools to meet the educational needs of MPS students.

In 1993, for example, the school board and the administration put before the voters a $366 million referendum that would have built 12 elementary and two middle schools in the inner city and renovated dozens more, in part so that busing could be reduced for African-American families. Citing concerns about property taxes, the referendum was opposed by Mayor Norquist, 10 of the 12 white members of the Milwaukee Common Council, and a few school board members (but supported by County Executive Tom Ament). The referendum came down to the question of whether white property owners were willing to pay for improved public education for African-American and Latino children. The answer was a resounding “no.” In an unprecedented voter turnout for an off-year primary election, the referendum was defeated 3 to 1. Some all-white districts voted up to 93% “no,” while predominantly Black districts voted “yes.”

In the last five years, Mayor Norquist has allocated about $54 million, in city-issued bonds, for school reconstruction and maintenance. This has paid for a backlog of major repairs such as window and boiler replacement and for the renovation of six elementary, middle, and high schools. In addition, the school district has an annual budget of approximately $7 million which goes into long-range maintenance.
The city and the district allocations are completely inadequate. The current 40-year, long-term maintenance plan calls for an annual expenditure of $13-$18 million just to keep the over 200 buildings (18 million square feet) of MPS functioning — to say nothing of building additional schools.

A 1992 MPS facilities study calculated that $1.2 billion in capital improvements was needed to ensure that all children had access to early childhood education, lower class size, art, music and computer rooms, and fully accessible buildings.

One of the problems is that under state law, school construction bonds must be approved by voters, while similar bonds for the city and county don’t. Thus the $117 million County Jail, $2 billion deep tunnel sewer project, and the $150 million Midwest Express convention center were built with public funds but without voter approval.

Even when voters turn down building referendum, policy makers can find alternatives if they want to. Wisconsin voters rejected by 2 to 1 a special sports lottery to fund a new County Stadium. Down but not out, Gov. Thompson and the legislature then set up a new taxing authority to raise $250 million in public funds to subsidize the new stadium.
In his State of the State speech this January Gov. Thompson said that 10% (about $5 million) of the MPS busing monies should be set aside for building neighborhood elementary schools. As Milwaukee Superintendent Alan Brown has pointed out, implementing this policy is difficult. It takes at least two years to build a new school. Busing of children — and the full funds needed to do so — would have to continue during that time.

Contrary to other Policies

Busing is also needed to support sound educational policies. In the recent years, the school board has sought to lower the number of students transferring in and out of schools because their families move during the school year. During each school year, the district receives around 70,000 requests for changes in transportation because students have moved, according to Mike Turza, head of parent and student services. Because such “mobility” undercuts academic achievement, MPS attempts to provide busing the entire academic year to the school the student started at in September. Even with this policy, however, MPS can not meet the transportation needs of almost 13,000 students (13.7% of the MPS population) who move during the school year. It could only do so if it increased busing even more.

Child care and safety concerns also affect busing decisions. Many parents prefer to have their children picked up and dropped off at an intersection close to their house rather than have their children walk unattended to their neighborhood school. (MPS has policy that children must walk if they are within two miles of their neighborhood school or one mile of a citywide specialty school.) “The lack of daycare opportunities has required many parents to view transportation as a pseudo daycare service,” according to a recent MPS analysis of busing. “Transportation provides an answer to unsafe neighborhoods.”
In response to these concerns, the administration plans to expand before- and after-school programs to make the neighborhood schools more attractive to nearby families.

State Rep. Polly Williams (D-Milw.) has proposed moving the citywide specialty schools from overcrowded Black neighborhoods to lesser crowded areas in white neighborhoods, allowing for more neighborhood schools in the central city. The School Administration floated this idea in December but it was strongly opposed by staff and parents from all schools involved.

The administration is recommending that the there be a 25% neighborhood requirement for all citywide schools. Another administrative proposal is to redraw the elementary school boundaries to reflect demographic shifts since the last major adjustment 20 years ago. School officials predict that for elementary students, such a redrawing will reduce the number of students in overcrowded attendance areas from about 10,000 to 6,000. The full impact will only be clear when the details of the proposed boundaries are released.

Which Way Forward?

The key question remains: how will the new policies to reduce busing and return to neighborhood schools affect African-American and Latino students?

Politicians will undoubtedly continue to attack busing. Nonetheless busing is here to stay. Given the permanent court injunction against intentional school segregation, legitimate educational reasons for busing, Milwaukee’s persistent housing segregation, and the shortage of schools in Black neighborhoods, there is no alternative. As Charne recently told Rethinking Schools, “Milwaukee needs to realize that we can’t do away with busing, given the city’s population distribution. The question is: How are we going to organize busing?”

The school board faces two particular challenges. First, how will it craft neighborhood school and busing policies that speak to the issues’ complexities and also provide quality education for all students.

Second, how will it avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. As MPS returns to neighborhood schools, it must avoid also going back to the inequities that were integral to past neighborhood school policies. It was these inequities that spawned the desegregation movement that led to the current busing policies that are now in such disfavor.
No one has an easy answer. But knowing what we must avoid is an essential beginning.

Bob Peterson ( teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools