The Return to Separate and Unequal

By Michael Barndt and Joel McNally

Rethinking Schools is pleased to present a condensed version of the 58-page report we released this January, “The Return to Separate and Unequal: Metropolitan Milwaukee School Fund-ing Through a Racial Lens.”

We believe the report is particularly timely given a New York State judge’s decision Jan. 10 that that state’s method of financing public schools was illegal not on state constitutional grounds, but because it disproportionately hurt students of color and thus violated federal civil rights laws. It was the first time a state school funding mechanism was thrown out based in part on federal civil rights grounds.


The failure of Wisconsin school funding policies to reduce disparities between richer and poorer districts is more than an issue of economic and educational fairness in the Milwaukee metropolitan area. It is an issue of civil rights and racial justice.

The state not only tolerates an enormous gulf between the resources provided Milwaukee’s urban students of color compared to their wealthier and whiter suburban counterparts; state funding policies also allow that gap to widen every year. As a result, separate and unequal school systems based on race – outlawed in this country half a century ago – are being re-established within the Milwaukee area with the state’s approval and active participation.

Racial motivation, conscious or unconscious, is suggested by the fact that two decades ago, when the percentage of whites and African Americans in MPS was nearly equal, spending per student was nearly equal for MPS and its suburbs, and both spent significantly above the state average. Twenty years later, after MPS was transformed into a district serving primarily students of color and into the state’s only district with a majority of African-American students, MPS spends significantly less than the suburban average and even less than the state average (see charts this page).

During the 1998-99 school year, MPS had $1,254 per student less to spend than the suburban average, based on the state’s “shared cost per member.”

The disparity between MPS and its suburbs is so severe that even if the state’s spending caps were lifted – a necessary first step to allow school districts to meet their immediate educational needs – and MPS had to rely on the property tax to close the spending gap, MPS would have to increase its tax levy by more than 75 percent to meet the suburban average, and by almost 100 percent to match high-wealth suburbs.

These are among the major findings of a research project on metropolitan school funding commissioned by Rethinking Schools. The districts studied include those within a 5-mile distance of Milwaukee, representing the suburban communities most tied to the metropolitan economy. It also represents those districts taking part in the Chapter 220 integration program between Milwaukee and its suburbs.

Enrollment in MPS in 1998-99 was almost 80 percent students of color: 61.4 percent African-American, 13.3 percent Latino, 4.1 percent Asian, and 1 percent Native-American, according to state figures. Only 20.2 percent of the students were white. The percentages are adjusted to take into account the more than 5,000 students of color who live in Milwaukee but are enrolled in suburban schools under Chapter 220.

Enrollments of students of color in 1998-99 in the suburbs averaged 14.4 percent and ranged from about 5 percent to 27 percent. Almost half of them were students living in Milwaukee but attending suburban schools under Chapter 220.

The driving force behind the widening gap in educational resources for urban students of color and suburban whites is the explosion of property valuation through the 1980s and 1990s in Milwaukee’s suburbs, but not in the city. The enormous amount of residential and commercial property valuation behind each student has enabled white suburban school districts to raise much greater amounts of school funds than MPS, with only slightly higher tax levies.

By 1998-99, high-wealth suburbs had a property valuation of $649,927 per student, medium-wealth suburbs $409,878 per student and low-wealth suburbs $306,782 per student. That compared to a property valuation behind each MPS student of only $145,371.

But it is the state’s failure to modernize its funding to keep pace with widening differences in property values – and the state funding formula’s failure to accomplish its stated goal of reducing financial and educational disparities – that condemns MPS students to fall further behind the white students of suburban districts in educational resources.


Under the Wisconsin constitution, the state is responsible for providing public education. Schools in the state are funded primarily through local property taxes and state monies, including what are known as state equalization funds.

The rhetoric of the state’s equalization plan is that it is intended to eliminate differences among districts’ ability to raise funds, while still allowing local communities to spend more on education if residents choose to do so. The equalization plan, however, fails to do so.

The equalization formula provides Milwaukee with more funds than any of its suburbs. But it also permits the growing gap between the amount spent on each city student and each suburban student.

Only by adjusting the equalization formula to account for the vast differences in property valuation between city and suburb can the state accomplish its announced goals for equalization funds – to “eliminate differences in ability to spend” between districts and to assure “that districts that spend at the same level will tax at the same rate.”


For the students of color in MPS, attending schools that are inadequately funded and in far worse physical condition than the schools of their white counterparts is merely a continuation of the long history of racial discrimination and segregation in Milwaukee.

It is the kind of unequal treatment and violation of basic constitutional rights that Federal Judge John Reynolds sought to end in 1976 when he ordered Milwaukee Public Schools to desegregate. Racial desegregation of the schools was supposed to provide equality in education for those so long denied educational opportunity. But the courts underestimated the ability of whites to continue to perpetuate racial separation through residential and economic segregation throughout the metropolitan area.

Between 1975, one year before the court order, and 1977, 14,877 white students – one-fifth of the total – left MPS. The percentage of students of color in MPS increased from about 40 percent in the mid-1970s to about 80 percent in 1998-99.

The dual school system perpetuated by the policy of racial containment and found unconstitutional by Judge Reynolds differed from today’s system primarily in scale. Instead of isolating only majority African-American schools and providing those schools with fewer educational resources, the current system isolates an entire school district and provides the whole district with fewer resources.


A decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July 2000 both upheld the constitutionality of the present state funding system and set a new standard requiring the state to address the additional educational burdens facing poorer school districts such as MPS.

The lawsuit, Vincent v. Voight, argued that wide variations in funding between wealthy and poor districts violate the state constitutional provision that the Legislature establish public schools that are “nearly as uniform as practicable.”

By a 4-3 vote, the court upheld the state’s current funding as constitutional. But one justice in the majority, Justice N. Patrick Crooks, then joined the three dissenters to form a different majority, establishing a new standard to determine whether the state was providing an equal opportunity for a sound, basic education.

Poverty and other disadvantages were among the factors the state had to address, those justices said. “An equal opportunity for a sound basic education … takes into account districts with disproportionate numbers of disabled students, economically disadvantaged students, and students with limited English language skills.” MPS leads the state in all three categories.

The court’s new standard goes beyond simply achieving equalization by closing the financial gap between MPS and its suburbs. It requires the state to provide for the added educational challenges associated with poverty in large urban districts such as MPS.

Only more funds for MPS under a true state equalization formula can reverse the widening funding gap between the city and suburbs and address the racial inequities under which the “majority minority” MPS district falls further behind its overwhelmingly white counterparts in the suburbs.

Michael Barndt is coordinator of the Data Center at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee and recently retired as associate professor of urban affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Joel McNally is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in the Milwaukee area.