The Seduction of “Choice”

Why the New Assignment Plan Should be Postponed and Redone

On February 10, Superintendent Peterkin’s office released a report suggesting
new ways to assign students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The report has
generated an uproar among parents and educators in Milwaukee. Entitled the Long-range Educational Equity Plan for Milwaukee Public Schools (LEEP), and produced by educational consultant Charles V. Willie from Harvard University, this report has articulated a number of long standing community concerns regarding equity, quality, and busing in MPS. Inasmuch as he has confirmed the existence of educational disparity in MPS and has ignited a discussion of these inequities, Dr. Willie is to be congratulated. For the first time in several years, many parents, community organizers and educators are addressing the deteriorating educational conditions in schools across the city, most notably the disparity between specialty and other successful schools compared to the schools Willie terms “in distress.”

The plan calls for dividing the city schools into two “equal” zones for assignment purposes and giving parents “choice” to send their children to approximately 50 different schools. Students would be limited to attending the schools in their own zone (east or west). Supporters of the plan, which include Superintendent Peterkin and some board members, say that the plan emphasizes equity and will improve the quality of education of all schools. They claim the disproportionality of black students being bused will decrease and that 2.8 million dollars will be saved in busing costs. They also say the plan streamlines the school selection process.

Compelling Critique of Inequity

The clearest and most compelling section of the report is its critique of the current system. Dr. Willie and his co-authors identify the crisis that exists in Milwaukee Public Schools by noting that, “…the existing student assignment plan is too complicated and confusing, is inequitable and racially unfair, and maximizes educational opportunity for some students but limits access to these opportunities for others.” They continue, “Moreover, the burden of using transportation to go to and from school is unfairly experienced by black and minority students, and a disproportionate amount of educational resources is spent on transportation.”

We applaud this critique and are pleased that its inclusion in an official MPS document has spurred a discussion about how best to deal with such disparities. In addition we believe that several other points included in the report deserve support: improving the assignment process so all parents, particularly poor parents have greater access to schools; identifying schools that don’t work and focusing resources on improving those schools; and reserving 55% of the seats around specialty schools for children who live nearby. Also this report marks the first time desegregation authorities officially recognize Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians as distinct “minority” groups. Previously these students, who constitute 12.4% of MPS’s student population, were classified as “non-black” for purposes of school assignment and as such were not seen as enhancing the racial balance of schools or deserving of preferential slots in many specialty schools.

Formal acknowledgement by the Peterkin administration of these issues is significant. The current inequities were embedded in the MPS desegregation process when it started in 1976 and furthered by the policies of Peterkin’s predecessors which were adopted by earlier School Boards. Recognition of these inequities by MPS has been long overdue and it is a welcome first step towards their eventual resolution.

What concerns us is both the process in which the plan was developed and, more importantly, how the new assignment plan proposes to resolve these long standing problems.

Complicated Document

The actual LEEP report is 81 pages and filled with numerous charts, tables and figures. It is a complex document which assumes a broad background knowledge and understanding of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, the history of desegregation in the city, and familiarity with the variety of recent structural changes implemented in MPS in the last two years. At a public hearing on the plan an MPS parent and noted bilingual educator, Dr. Ricardo Fernandez, stated that in his work over the years he had read 20 to 30 different desegregation plans and that the LEEP was the most difficult to understand. He suggested that the document be simplified and terms used within it — such as “desegregation” — be clearly defined so that it is more understandable to people in the community and thus allows for greater community input.

Unfortunately the report’s complexity and vagueness are not its only problems. The first part of the report describes the current problems with MPS desegregation, quotes from School Board goals, and provides outcome statements as to how this plan resolves the various problems. But the rest of the report obscures or doesn’t include concrete descriptions of what is going to be done to achieve these outcomes, overwhelming the reader with selective and often misleading facts and figures.

Reducing the Burden of Busing on Blacks

Relying heavily on the seductive notion of choice for all parents, Willie proposes a plan to reduce the burden of busing on black children. He states in an underlined sentence that: “There will be few, if any, mandatory assignments for any racial or ethnic group” and cites statistics from other cities saying that only a small percentage of students were “mandatorily assigned.” Despite these lofty promises, Willie candidly admits there are 19,000 more inner city (primarily black) students than rooms in neighborhood schools. Hence regardless of the number of choices available to these students, no fewer than 19,000 must “choose” a school out of their neighborhood. To make matters worse, under the Willie plan only 55% of the seats in any school may go to students within a two mile radius of the school. When this rule is applied to the almost two dozen predominantly minority schools in Milwaukee there might be thousands more children who must “choose” a school out of their neighborhood. For the students in the more segregated East Zone, this virtually guarantees even more black students will be bused out of their neighborhoods to the all white South Side. In other words, these students will not get a “mandatory assignment” as long as they don’t choose the overcrowded schools close to home.

The plan’s assertion that “the use of transportation to go to and from school will be shared equally by students in all racial and ethnic groups” is equally problematic. There is no support for this statement. The report merely states that the number of students and seats in the zone should be “comparable,” that assignments to schools will be on the basis of racial quotas, that no school can become “racially or ethnically imbalanced.” It then concludes that “by eliminating …individual school attendance areas and making all schools within a zone schools of choice, the transportation burden is fair and equalized for all.” This is a remarkable assertion that seems to forget the earlier statistic that there are 19,000 black elementary children unable to go to their neighborhood schools because of the historic lack of schools in their neighborhoods. It also assumes that the schools are evenly divided around each zone. They are not. There are more in the white neighborhoods of this city.

We would do well to remember the empty claims of former Superintendent McMurrin and his Deputy Superintendent Bennett. They became famous throughout the country for their so called “voluntary” desegregation plan. Their use of the word “voluntary” was possible because the School Board closed many of inner city schools and made others into specialty schools which severely restricted people from the neighborhood from attending. According to Bennett and McMurrin the children in those neighborhoods “volunteered” to go to another school.

Segregated East Zone

Willie and his co-authors correctly state that “more economically disadvantaged students reside in the East Zone.” (p. 17) Because Willie does not acknowledge that the students he refers to here are largely African American, he fails to address an important disparity. Most of the city’s poor black population resides in the East Zone. In fact, 14 of the city’s 16 virtually all black schools are in the East Zone. Given that greater numbers of professional and more affluent blacks reside in the more integrated neighborhoods of the West zone where schools are more evenly distributed among all neighborhoods, the desegregation of the west zone students might proceed relatively smoothly. But cutting off the west side makes desegregation of the highly segregated East Zone considerably more difficult. Most of the city’s new schools are either in the West Zone or in the all white southern end of the East Zone. Thus not only will the economically disadvantaged black children living on the near north side (in the East Zone) continue to bear the brunt of busing, they may now have to travel even longer distances to attend schools on the far South Side because they can no longer attend nearby West Zone schools.

Although Willie gives lip service to the economic disparities in the East Zone, he fails to propose reforms that speak to the issue. Thus his assertion that under his “comprehensive and living desegregation plan…no students are disadvantaged because of their residence, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status” is simply untrue.

Impact on Integrated Neighborhoods

The impact of the Willie plan on racially diverse neighborhoods, particularly those in the more integrated West Zone, is also potentially quite damaging. Given that no more than 55% of students in any school can reside within a two mile radius of a school, wherever schools and integrated communities have developed partnerships, local residents will often be forced out of their neighborhood schools to “enhance” racial balances at other schools. Never mind that integrated neighborhoods, which ought to be rewarded for their efforts, are penalized just as segregated neighborhoods are. Parents and teachers at Fratney, Hi-Mount and Carlton have expressed concern about the impact of the plan on their naturally integrated neighborhoods.

Redressing Grievances

One could imagine that when the authors of a “long-range educational equity plan” “learned that a disproportionate number of school buildings in predominantly black communities were closed when the existing [desegregation] plan was implemented,” [p.12] they might suggest that a high priority be place on building significant numbers of new schools in the black community. Unfortunately they only assert that this “grievance in the black community…is being redressed in part by MPS constructing three new buildings.” Only two of these are elementary schools, increasing the system’s capacity by a total of 1,470 students. Assuming 55% of the students served at these schools will be from the adjacent neighborhoods, these new schools will only deal with 4% of the 19,000 children currently unable to get into their neighborhood schools.

The report’s historical section is as revealing for what includes as for what it omits. Its strength is that we finally have an MPS document stating what critics have been saying for years: that a key root of the inequity is that many black schools were closed and others made into specialty schools when the desegregation plan was first implemented. These results stem from what the report earlier calls “well-intended efforts [by MPS] to implement the 1979 intradistrict settlement agreement.” It fails to acknowledge, of course, that the School Board and administration at that time consciously ignored the recommendations of the broad based, democratically elected Committee of 100 which called for a rational pairing and clustering approach to desegregation. Such a proposal, which would have paired all-black and all-white schools together, would have considerably reduced the amount and distance of busing, would have placed its burden equally on blacks and whites, and would have given parents more control over their local schools. Families from particular neighborhoods would have sent their children to one or two schools, thus affording the opportunity for neighborhood/ school organizing. The recommendations were ignored and the “voluntary” plan was implemented. Black children were dispersed in a “shot-gun” fashion throughout the city. For example, children from the Auer Avenue attendance area were sent to over 90 schools.

So now we have a plan that divides the city into “two equal zones.” Parents from the Auer Avenue attendance area instead of having a choice of being dispersed to 100 different schools will now be able to choose only from 56. This brings us no closer to establishing community and parent control over the schools. The discussions over the backyard fences will not lead to collective action to improve their kids’ school, as their neighbor’s child will more than likely be going to another school.

The families living around Auer Avenue will not get a new school in their neighborhood. They will not be paired with a couple of white schools. Instead of being shot out of a double barrel shot gun to 90 schools, they will be shot out of single barrel gun to 56 schools.

Quality Education is Goal

The authors assert that the plan puts an emphasis on educational quality by replicating existing specialty schools and by giving attention to schools “in distress.” The plan “contains a self-initiating school improvement mechanism that will enhance the quality of education in the system’s least attractive schools.” This means that if not enough students choose a particular school the school will “come under scrutiny of the Zone Coordinating Board [made up of the three community superintendents of that zone] and will be targeted for immediate school improvement.” The Zone Coordinating Board will have the power to study the school and make recommendations. The school will be automatically designated as a “school based management” school.

The underlying assumption behind this plan is that competition between schools is healthy. We could envision more emphasis being placed on marketing at a particular school than at improving the quality of its program. We envision this plan engendering competition and reducing the sharing of ideas that work between schools. It sets up disincentives to the cooperation and collaboration that schools so desperately need. Moreover, low norm-referenced standardized test scores and “difficulty attracting a desegregated student body” are the sole criteria used in the report to describe a school as “educationally distressed.” One could imagine principals — who have been given the responsibility to recruit students — forcing their staff to spend even more time on pumping up the test scores so that the image of the school would be high in the public eye. We find it rather curious after all these years that the School Board and the Central Administration have failed to integrate certain schools, they now throw the entire responsibility to do so onto the principal and his or her staff. The principal of one predominantly black school commented that if principals were going to held accountable and responsible for integrating their schools, perhaps aldermen should be held responsible for integrating their neighborhoods. Will these increased pressures on local schools to attract parents increase the genuine quality in the school or encourage local school sites to engage in activities which will get better press and publicity? In addition, staffs of predominantly black schools, instead of pursuing ways to better serve neighborhood children with the development of Africancentric curriculum, for example, would feel pressure to attract white children from afar.

What about the specialty schools?

The recent public hearings on the plan at the end of February and in early March served in many ways to reinforce the concerns of the school board that enriched educational opportunities are afforded to only a few and jealously guarded by those fortunate enough to have received assignment to those schools. It gave credence to Willie’s observation that “a perception has arisen among many citizens that non-specialty schools are second class schools which do not offer the same high quality educational experience as specialty schools.” (p. 2).

Of the 175 parents at the Marshall and Tech High School hearings, specialty school participants and white parents were in greater number and the most outspoken. A constant theme echoed time and again was that these schools had exciting and quality environments, and forcing West Zone parents out of schools they had spent years building was a travesty and patently unfair.

It is easy enough to dismiss the concerns of these parents as the mere gnashing of teeth by the few who are about to lose educational privileges for their children. However, the division of the city into two zones will not suddenly spread around the privileges. It won’t enfranchise parents who are currently forced to send their children to inferior schools, and it won’t create more privileges to go around. Given that nearly all of the showcase specialties are located in black neighborhoods in the East Zone, again most poor black students will still not have access due to their large numbers in these neighborhoods and due to a lack of classroom space. Additionally, for every West Zone advantaged white family bumpe from the specialties, more East Zone whites will take their place. Hardly a solution.

Willie states that the specialty schools will be replicated in each zone. The report claims such specialties “can be fully replicated without any educational disruption within four years.” The report gives no indication that the authors understand the monies, energies, and time that went into establishing the current specialty schools. Nor is there evidence that they anticipate the conflicts that went on during the first several years as specialties were established in schools that had already existing programs and staffs. If giving parents “choice” in selecting school is supposed to generate more specialty schools why hasn’t it done so already?

Bilingual needs

Concerns were raised by both Native American and Hispanic speakers at the hearings about the fact that the largest number of students and programs for those students are concentrated in the East Zone and that to duplicate the resources and programs in the West Zone might prove quite difficult. Furthermore, last year when Dr. Peterkin established the six service delivery areas, he consciously placed the bilingual schools together in Service Delivery Areas IV. Under the new plan several of those bilingual schools — Longfellow, Kagal and Wisconsin Avenue will be switched to a new service delivery area. Splitting the bilingual schools into two different zones will make cooperating more difficult, and most likely meetings more numerous.

Saving Money or Wishful Thinking?

One of the more appealing aspects of Willie’s plan for many city residents is his claim that it will save “at least 2.8 million dollars” from the $40 million currently spent on student transportation.

An examination of the specific claims, however, reveals some overly optimistic thinking or some significant negative consequences. The biggest money savings, according to the authors, will come by sharply curtailing, if not eliminating, busing for four year old kindergartners. This will racially segregate many of the K-4 classrooms and severely disrupt several school programs whose success is partially dependent on the K-4 program. Another alleged savings comes by increasing the number of children on a single bus to 55, up from the current 35 student cap. No mention is made of the probable necessity of hiring and training bus aides to be on such buses.

The Way Forward

The Willie plan, provocative as it may be, deserves to be rejected by the school board. The central issues of equity, quality, and the unfair burden of busing which Willie attempts to resolve must remain a focal point of public debate until creative and sound changes are suggested and implemented.

These are extremely difficult issues, both in Milwaukee and the nation as a whole. Perhaps we would have success, however, if two things were kept in mind. First, solutions must not be “top down” but rather come from or at least have significant involvement from the community of parents and teachers whose daily lives will be affected. Secondly, and most importantly, these serious problems of educational equity and quality can ultimately be solved only within the larger context of broader community and social issues. While no single plan should be expected to solve all social ills, we are gravely concerned that this plan heads us in the wrong direction. It purports to solve deep seated problems through the use of “choice” and competition, somehow separating a “marketplace” of schools from the realities of our urban environment. We believe local neighborhoods must exert more control over and take more responsibility for their schools. In turn as one of the few major institutions still functioning in many neighborhoods, schools must not be transplanted isolates catering to needs of communities distant from the neighborhood around the school. They must become increasingly linked to those neighborhoods as centers for educational, recreational and cultural activities. And to the degree such neighborhoods are segregated, school communities need to be paired and clustered together in such a way that parental involvement and power as well multiracial unity is encouraged and respected.

Given the energy and excitement generated by the Willie plan it seems the time is right to harness parental power to produce changes in the system. Consideration might be given to the following suggestions:

  • Establishment of a local task force to lead a process that would identify real mechanisms for creatively changing the school assignment process to relieve the burden of busing on black students and increase overall equity within the system. Serious consideration should be given to reconstituting the grassroots structures that were created in 1976 at the time of the original order. If representatives from every school were empowered to work together to come up with proposals for change, there would be a much better chance of success and community support.
  • Implement the report’s suggestion that energies and resources be focused on those schools that are suffering most.
  • Match successful schools (specialty and non-specialty) with clusters of schools wanting to replicate such schools. There would need to be staff release time for training, sharing and collaborative work, paid parental organizers to work with parents in schools working to change, and provisions for additional resources to schools embarking on this challenge.
  • Consider developing African-American curricula in some of the schools.
  • Begin implementing the recommendations of the K-12 Curriculum Task Force and Assessment Task Force.
  • Require that “quality schools” reserve slots for all minority groups and attend to the balance of socio-economic groups.
  • Maintain Willie’s provision for recognizing Hispanic, Native American and Asian students as distinct minority groups for purposes of desegregation assuring them access to specialty schools or other schools that meet their special needs.
  • Reconsider the pairing and clustering proposals of the Committee of 100.

The task ahead is difficult. The policy makers at all levels have difficult decisions to make. We believe that to the degree there is genuine parental discussion and involvement in the development of a plan to improve equity and quality in the Milwaukee Public Schools, there will be success.