Reactions to the Desegregation Settlement

Mary Bills

The lawsuit- the Milwaukee Public Schools filed against the suburbs and the state was to prevent Milwaukee from becoming like Detroit, Chicago or St. Louis.

The settlement makes me wonder who sued whom. The suburbs wanted to maintain the status quo. They wanted to ensure that they would not have to live next to or send their children to school with a significant number of poor or minority children. Finally they wanted to make sure Milwaukee would never sue them again. They got everything they wanted. 

Milwaukee originally wanted redistricting or at least a remedy which would include housing and go beyond Chapter 220. What we got can be described as a combination of a “new” and “classic” Chapter 220. Milwaukee gave away virtually everything; redistricting, thousands of seats for Milwaukee children in the suburbs, millions of dollars for remediation, screening, Muskego-Norway, any leverage or “teeth” to enforce the settlement, and all our evidence.

We did this for six million dollars. We did get a housing component, but I’m afraid it will turn out to be largely symbolic.

Not only will this settlement put Milwaukee at the back of the educational bus, but I predict it will tie our hands in ways we are not even aware of yet I am even more convinced today that redistricting on a metropolitan basis provides the only chance for a long-term solution in which we can provide equal educational opportunities to children in the greater Milwaukee area.

Much of the criticism of the Milwaukee- only desegregation effort revolved around the specialty schools which were created to prevent white flight. The “old” Chapter 220 provided money for the desegregation effort by moving black children disproportionately. If we had spent half the time and money on the desegregated and all-black schools as we did on the specialty schools, we might not be dealing with so much frustration and middle-class family flight today.

The “new” Chapter 220 settlement provides for increased opportunities for a limited number of middle class blacks and other minorities.

The challenge for the Milwaukee Public Schools, as I see it, will be to meet the educational needs of the growing underclass and the working poor trapped in the city by residency requirements or the inability to move or send their children to private, parochial, or suburban schools.

Don’t get me wrong. We can do it, but I wish we had a more level playing field. We need small classes and caring, committed adults who are educated to meet the needs of children growing up in a fatherless society. We need to downsize our central administration, implement school-based management and focus on early childhood education.

To me, education is a life-long process and schooling is only one piece of it. School is a place to acquire some basic skills, a place to experience the joy of learning, and a place where you learn to get along with others. To put it simply, school is a place where children learn to live in the real world. Children educated in isolation, whether it be racially, socioeconomically, or culturally are not receiving a quality education which will adequately prepare them to live in a global society,

Mary Bills, Member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors.

Howard Fuller

In all honesty I haven’t spent a great deal of time studying the suit because I’ve never considered it to be something that was in the interest of the vast majority of students in the Milwaukee Public School system. For a variety of reasons related to my own mental health I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at it. But from what I do know about it I think that the concerns that some of us had about filing the suit in the first place really came to be the case. Millions of dollars have been spent and a great deal of time and energy that should have been directed towards improving instruction went into this suit. At the end of all of it, no one can clearly tell me what we got out of it.

From my standpoint, it is another example of people concentrating on the wrong issues and, in the end, not being able to point out how we as a community have really benefited from the effort. But Again, I have to qualify that by saying I haven’t spent a lot of time studying it. I’m only responding to the things that I’ve read and some of the discussions that I’ve had with people about really what’s contained within the suit.

We’ve suggested the idea of the new school district that would include North Division High School, Parkman Middle School and Auer, Lee, Franklin, Keefe, Clark, 20th and Hopkins elementary schools. We made this proposal for several reasons. One of them has to do with the whole issue of empowerment. My analysis of the data says that poor black kids are not learning in the Milwaukee Public School system and that there is this wide gap in achievement levels; although quite frankly I’m not sure that poor kids of any race are learning unless they’re in specialty schools and then I’m not sure how many poor kids are in specialty schools. So the issue for us is that a new district would be smaller and built on the notions of true parental involvement, true site-based management, and the elimination of the large and unnecessary bureaucratic layers that educators have to deal with. The question is whether or not all those things could in fact enhance learning, plus for young blacks, whether the fact that there would be some control in the black community would have an impact on achievement.

Now, I’ve gone back and done some reading on what happened with Oceanhill-Brownsville and I.S. 201. There is an attitudinal study done by a woman named Gitell that talked about how much better students who come from community controlled schools do. They have a much more positive attitude about themselves, their community, and their schools and that translates into higher levels of achievement. They’re other kinds of studies that have been done that would indicate that our idea has merit. Quite frankly I’m taking the position that at the point that we’re at, what is it that we could lose by attempting something of this nature? And if not exactly this,

something that’s closely akin to this, that’s really going to empower parents and educators to try to do something about the problem that we have.

Merely tinkering around at the edges, top down proposals, or distorting proposals that even had merit at one point like P-5 – I just don’t see how we can continue to do that. Irrespective of the kind of emotional and sometimes uninformed response that seems to come from some quarters, I think that we need to push ahead with proposals like this one or other ones that get at the issue of breaking up this monopoly of the system, creating a better learning environment for teachers and students. Just spreading kids out all over the place and just busing them here and there is not going to touch the problem that we have. 

I think that [MPS Business Manager] Peterburg’s comment about what would — happen if people from Bay View demanded a similar district is just raising this boogie man about all these totally racist people over there. And that really pisses me off because maybe the people ought to raise it, if they raise it in the way we do where we clearly did not talk about denying people access because of race. In fact our proposal for a new district is the only plan to even talk about integration for that area, which is what makes this so ridiculous….so what Peterburg is really saying is, “What? You all want to do something without us?“ Yeah, maybe people do.

Howard Fuller, Dean of General Education, Milwaukee Area Technical College.

William Lynch

The NAACP thinks that the settlement of the lawsuit, and the terms of that settlement will substantially expand the opportunities for black students to participate in the schools in the suburbs. It will also show some promise of increasing the participation of white children in the city schools. It sets up the mechanism to ensure that black children who attend the suburban schools are treated fairly and that the suburban schools alter staffing patterns and other ways in which they operate to ensure equal treatment of black students who attend suburban schools.

The settlement provides for enforcement by the NAACP, not just the Milwaukee School Board. The NAACP can bring enforcement proceedings before an arbitrator if a matter can’t be settled short of arbitration.

The settlement provides for binding arbitration, and the arbitration award is enforceable by federal court. We feel that the availabilty of arbitration, without having in each circumstance to prove anything about past and intentional discrimination is a very effective means for ensuring that the suburbs follow through on committments they have made in the agreement

The settlement provides for the coordinating council which is dealing with settlement matters to help develop a plan for assuring that the assignment and transportation of students is more efficiently and effectively-carried out. It is our hope that the way in which the assignments

take place will further the continuity of

children with the schools they attend and

the neighborhoods in which they live.

We think that it is a very significant step forward for the state to recognize the importance of integrating the communities in which we live in order to assure full equality and opportunity in life for minority students and their families. We think the long term goal of integrating communities so that black and white children walk to integrated schools is a desirable one.

Not only does the settlement provide that suburban districts are going to greatly expand the employment of teachers and other staff persons who are minorities, the settlement also provides for taking the suburbs to task before the arbitrator if they fail to expand those opportunities effectively. The settlement provides a mechanism for an analysis by the arbitrator to ensure that the good faith commitment is in fact followed through on, not just paid lip service.

The NAACP in its court papers asked the court to consider redistricting the area to promote integrated schooling and housing in the area. We were unsuccessful in the lawsuit to be able to get a court order dividing up the metropolitan area into new districts that would be more naturally integrated. The settlement may foster that development in the future but the NAACP has agreed with the suburbs that the NAACP, itself, will not affirmatively lobby for redistricting.

The settlement and the litigation effort have greatly expanded the range of opportunities for minority students in the metropolitan area. It will have a very substantial impact on breaking down the barriers that have existed in this community for many years. The suburban schools will no longer have as their policy keeping down and limiting the number of minority students that they will admit to their districts. It’s a dramatic shift of policy to meeting enforceable affirmative goals of increasing the participation of minorities in those districts. This participation extends beyond just schools and student opportunities to opportunities for teachers and other staff persons. It provides for expanded opportunities for minorities to live in those communities not just to be bused in and out.

William Lynch, attorney for the Milwaukee Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Ricardo Fernandez

From what I know of the settlement I think the importance is probably going to be more in the long term impact instead of the short run. By long term I mean 10 or 20 years.

I think providing options for minority students is fine, but the basic problem of the settlement, as I see it, despite its positive aspects, is that it doesn’t get to the problems within MPS. I believe the problems within MPS have to be solved within the perimeter of MPS. Even though the suburbs provide a nice escape valve to relieve some pressure, the bulk of the students are not touched by the settlement. They are getting an inferior education still to this day and I don’t believe they’ll go out there to the suburbs.

Therefore it’s a problem that the suit has taken away attention from the problems faced by schools that have high concentrations of blacks and Hispanics. The focus should be on the need to improve the quality of instruction for those students.

In order to get a settlement I think Milwaukee was perhaps forced to give in to pressure from the suburbs. I doubt if the money that the gate promised to come up with in return for the settlement will help that much. I’m not trying to belittle the importance of money, but its value will be only to the extent it is used not just for moving kids but rather to improve the quality of instruction. Otherwise that money will just be an extension of Chapter 220, and I don’t think Chapter 220 solves any real problems for the majority of kids in Milwaukee Public Schools.

For Hispanic students the impact is small because of their minimal participation in Chapter 220. A lot of schools that have high concentrations of Hispanic students are schools that have the same problem as those with high concentrations of black students. I don’t see how the settlement will have much of an impact on these students. I’m not referring to those in the bilingual program, but to the majority who are outside the bilingual education program. The quality of instruction for those students outside of the bilingual program has to improve, too. One way to move forward is by turning over more school management to the local schools. I don’t think that the principals should have all the responsibility or authority. Teachers are given the responsibility for educating the kids, but not the necessary authority. Teachers need to be empowered to change their own destiny. The shift in power to local schools should not just go to the principals. Power and decision-making need to be shared in a more collaborative approach. Authority must be shared at the local level with staff, the principals and parents.

Ricardo Fernandez, Associate Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education at the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee and former Director of the Midwest National Origin Desegregation Assistance Center.