North Division District Plan

Our Children Deserve Better

By Peter Murrell, J r.

Since August a great deal of attention has been focused on the educational future of the 8,000 inner-city students of Milwaukee. The attention focused not on the desegregation settlement between suburban districts and Milwaukee Public Schools, but on a unique proposal for the creation of an autonomous school district, independent of the Milwaukee Public Schools administration, in an area of-the city now predominantly black.

The proposal comes from a large group of inner city residents, activists and educators who organized and developed a plan to address the serious mis-education of Milwaukee’s poor and largely minority children. The proposed New North Division school district would include North Division High School, Francis Parkman Middle School, and nine elementary schools — Auer, Clarke, Franklin, Hopkins, Keefe, Lee, Lloyd, 20th Street and 21st Street. The proposed district has not only reshaped the terms of the debate concerning quality education within metropolitan Milwaukee; the issues the plan poses are receiving national attention because of their implications for urban education.

Why does the proposal continue to gain support despite the settlement upon the desegregation plan approved by the federal district court? Why is the proposal discussed more and more in the national press as well as the professional literature of educators?

There are several reasons for the attention received by the proposal locally and nationally. First, the proposed New North Division School District represents what could be a constitutional test of the legitimacy of a separate district that happens to be predominantly black. Opponents of the plan charge that it constitutes the return to the “separate but equal” doctrine struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown decision. Secondly, among professional educators the proposal represents an important experiment, since the plan calls for a management structure which has not been implemented before — true site-based management which includes local determination of both faculty and curriculum.

The most important reason for the national and local interest is that the proposal has initiated a political battle having both educational and legal implications for the community’s right to self-determination. Supporters of the plan regard the critical issue to be control of the options to ensure quality education for their children.

Why is the New District Needed?

Development of the proposal was sparked by the community’s frustration over the appalling job Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) has done in educating poor black children and also by major research which dramatically reveals the extent of this miseducation in Milwaukee. The Governor’s Study Commission collected data on Milwaukee Metropolitan schools and has revealed gross differences in the quality of education received by poor black children as compared to middle-class white students. It found that the two strongest predictors of academic success were the race and economic status of the student.

Standardized measures of academic achievement for poor and non-white students were significantly below those of middle class whit^; while the dropout and suspension rates were significantly higher. In 1985-86, if you were a black student in an MPS high school, you had less than a 50-50 chance of graduating from high school — the completion rate was 46% as compared to a 84% high school completion rate statewide. The overall grade point average of non-whites in MPS high schools was less than 1.5 on a 4.00 .scale. The Study Commission’s Report showed conclusively that most* poor and minority children are not learning in the schools that they are attending in MPS.

In addition to the failure of MPS schools to educate poor and minority children as reflected in achievement scores and grade points averages, the data show schools are much more punitive towards these youngsters. Black children in the Milwaukee Public Schools receive a disproportionate number of disciplinary actions. In 1985-86, black students received 75% of all suspensions. The significance of this dismal statistic is that this extent of punitive treatment is linked with lack of instruction. The total of black students suspended in 1985-86 was 9,285. Multiplying this number of suspensions by the average days students may remain on suspension yields an estimate of thousands of hours of instruction missed by black children in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Proponents of the plan acknowledge the difficulties that every large metropolitan school district faces with a large population of poor students, and point out that this is precisely why the new district is needed.

Because the new district will be much smaller than this, it will be better able to work in tandem with-community based efforts, to improve schooling.

What are the Goals of the Plan? 

The focus of the proposed new district is quality education. Stated simply, the general goals are to increase students’ academic achievement, reduce dropout rates, increase parental and community involvement in the administration of the schools, and enhance access to quality education by creating parental options.

The key issue of the proposed new district is the creation of a system of administration that is more responsive to the educational needs of the black students and that increases the educational options of their parents. The thrust of the proposed new district is to empower parents with authority to hold schools accountable. Unlike MPS, parents who are not satisfied with the quality of schooling in the new district can take their children, along with the per-student state and money, to another school system. According to the new district proposal, this is desirable in any case because it is totally consistent with the goal of accountability — that no school deserves their enrollees, nor the state aids contingent on enrollments, unless it provide quality education.

The basis for the specific proposals, is a substantial body of research which has identified factors that appear to be most important to .high academic achievement in schools. The research identifies the importance of collaborative administration in which the instructional leadership of the schools involves the parents in planning and decision-making. An emerging research literature (e.g., Gpodlad, 1984), which examines the schooling process more critically, generally concludes that large schools need reorganized into smaller units that more closely calibrate to the developmental needs of the students.

How Would the District Operate?

The proposed new school district would operate independently of the Milwaukee Public Schools, but would have the same relationship that other metropolitan school districts have with MPS.-Wisconsin’s system of schools presently consists of 432 school districts, ranging in enrollment from 55 students to 90,000 students. The proposed New North Division School District would become Wisconsin’s 433rd, and with 8,446 students it would become the 11th largest school district in the state. As a member of the Wisconsin State Educational System the new district would be subject to all regulations and policies of the state. The new district also would be eligible to participate in the full range of State Aid Programs.

A key feature of the proposed district is its size. It is clear that the large size of MPS has inhibited efforts to reverse its failures. Attempts to redress the issues regarding low achievement, as well as high suspension and expulsion rates among poor black students have become lost in layers of MPS bureaucracy. The smaller new proposed North Division School district is being designed to permit the creation of an administrative system more responsive to parents and to the educational needs of students.

A second key feature of the plan is a provision to increase racial integration within the schools of the new proposed district, making it the only educational plan proposed in recent months which has built in a mechanism for racial integration. Under the plan, 35% of the classroom seats in the district would be held open for whites who might transfer in. The plan assumes participation in the voluntary Chapter 220 program of interdistrict transfers. Increases in the quality of educational delivery of schools in the district may attract a number of Chapter 220 transfers of nonminorities into the district.

A third key feature is the relationship of schools to the community. As mentioned earlier, the school can work more cooperatively with the community in its attempts to create solutions to community-based problems—such as gangs. However, enrollment would be voluntary. No youngster within the proposed district boundaries—roughly the area bordered by Capitol Drive, Vine, 39th and 8th streets—would bd required to attend a school in the district. Under the plan they would retain their Chapter 220 option to attend a MPS school or go to school in one of the suburban districts.

How Will the District Be Created?

The bill calling for the creation of this district is currently being drafted in the state legislature. The legislature could enact the new district by passing the bill creating the district or by referendum. The bill is currently being drafted for introduction in the State Legislature by January of 1988.

Creation of the new district by the legislature would not require that it generate any additional revenue. No new tax increases would need to be created because the new district would obtain its funds the same way any other district in the state does. Wisconsin Statutes provide state support for each of the state’s 432 school districts, guaranteeing a specific amount of money for each student in the district. The State of Wisconsin would pay from upwards of 90% of the cost of the new school district.

Is the Plan Constitutional? 

Derrick Bell, Harvard University Law School Professor and scholar of the Constitution and civil rights litigation for some 30 years, has pointed out two important reasons why the plan is wholly constitutional. First, the plan is intended to further the basic goal of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which was to provide, not racial balance; but equal educational opportunity. The purpose of the plan is to create the structures in the predominantly black schools to ensure access to quality education.

Second, for the last decade or so the Supreme Court has made it increasingly difficult for civil rights plaintiffs to prove racial discrimination solely on the basis of disproportionate numbers of black pupils in given areas of school districts. The Reagan administration has incessantly attempted to dismantle hard-earned civil rights legislation by not only refusing to adjudicate violations of federal law, but also by creating a stricter burden of proof for civil rights plaintiffs. When the challenge is against an institutional structure or policy that unfavorably affects blacks, but where the plaintiffs cannot show the policy was intentional discrimination, the courts have ruled against plaintiffs.

It is ironic and perhaps just that this same legal barrier constructed to hinder attempts to dismantle institutional racism now becomes the ally of the black community and its right to quality education. Specifically, if the School Board or anyone else wishes to challenge the constitutionality of the New District Plan once enacted by the State Legislature, it would have this same very difficult burden of proof in showing racial discrimination. That is, they would have to show that the legislature intentionally acted to discriminate against those blacks who choose to educate their children in the New North Division School District. The fact^that the enactment would create a district that happens to be, at least initially, almost all black is not sufficient constitutional grounds to sue on the basis of racial discrimination.

What Does the District Offer That MPS Cannot Provide?

Many critics of the New North Division School District have failed to consider the fundamental changes that take place in classrooms when the management of schools is truly site-based and self-determined. This has never happened in MPS and only in recent months has the administration been willing to try a limited experiment with a limited concept of site-based management.

There are two points to be made about the better instruction that will come about with a smaller district. First, a smaller more accountable district is easier to manage and responsive to the needs of students, parents and community. The new school district’s accountability to parents combined with parental choice will have an impact on the quality of classroom instruction when both of these factors are present. By contrast, for most poor and minority students, the Milwaukee Public Schools are neither accountable to the parents, nor do the parents have the option of choosing a better school.

Administration in MPS schools has proven to be too large and much too bureaucratic for parents to effectively address the problem of their children receiving mediocre schooling. In instances where parents advocate quality education for their children, their dissatisfactions with the schooling process are most often discounted or disregarded. The problem typically is pursued on the basis of what students lack instead of what the school lacks in its instructional delivery.

The second point concerns the more subtle implications of being poor and black in school? containing educators who do not believe these children can learn. MPS cannot remove these educators nor prevent their exposure to poor minority children, even under the proposed site-based management plan, because schools still will not be permitted to select their faculty. In contrast, schools in the New North Division School District would not only determine policy jointly with the community, but would also insist on securing their own faculty. This feature is key because it is not merely the pedagogical approach that create schools that work, but also the fact that instructors believe in, and are committed to the approach they choose.

If schools are to provide students access to knowledge that enables them to think critically, reason well and comprehend important ideas, without requiring that they deny their cultural identity, they need to be an extension of the students’ cultural experience and community.

Effective pedagogical design can never be determined in the absence of the social context of schools. What each school within the new district can develop that it cannot develop under MPS is the creation of curricula which encourage learning as an interaction among students and faculty by building upon their common cultural capital — their shared cultural heritage, knowledge and experience. Schools which truly are extensions of the communities they serve are able to involve parents and draw on the strengths of the community. The children of the inner city, if they are to survive, must experience education that enables and empowers them to reflect critically and act morally in the world — a preparation which requires them to reason about their social reality without diminishing their ethnic or cultural identity. The children deserve this chance.