The roughly 6,400 children taking part in the metropolitan Milwaukee desegregation effort known as Chapter 220 are understandably worried. The fate of Chapter 220 is unclear, embroiled in the two thorniest issues facing urban education: money and race.
The latest round in what has been a decades-long controversy erupted in late November. The Milwaukee School Board voted not to extend the metropolitan-wide agreement when it expires in June and to instead sign individual contracts with suburbs. The news dropped like a bombshell, creating a public relations nightmare for MPS as it sought to dispel fears that it was willing to scuttle the program. Furthermore, because the program is funded by the state, it immediately became caught up in the politics of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s 1995-97 budget.
Confusion still swirls around the fate of that aspect of the Chapter 220 program known as the interdistrict program under which minority MPS students attend school in the suburbs and white suburbanites attend MPS. Although the program is all but certain to continue in one form or another, it’s future won’t be clear until the legislature finishes work on the budget this June or July. What is most clear is that the debate is part of a national dilemma as school districts across the country face not only increasing educational and housing apartheid, but decreasing political will to confront such issues.
“There is no simple way forward,” notes Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University and a national authority on desegregation. “If you want to have integration you have to work on both housing and school issues, and you have to work on them explicitly. Those are hard issues, especially if you are in one of the most hypersegregated communities in the country, such as Milwaukee.”
Those who support interdistrict Chapter 220 have one still-powerful tool: the threat of a lawsuit. If the legislature guts Chapter 220 and facilitates the resegregation of schools, that threat may be used. “The NAACP takes the position, and has taken it for many years, that the resegregation of the schools is a matter that is subject to possible legal challenge,” says William Lynch, an attorney for the NAACP on Chapter 220.
“As far as I know, Brown v. Board of Education has not been overruled yet by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Chapter 220 must fight for survival in a political climate in which neither integration nor increased money for urban schools are part of the conservative agenda. Even those who support the program realize it is an expensive and flawed substitute for the more desirable goal of metropolitan-wide schooling that would allow Milwaukee to tap the tax base of the richer suburbs and that would provide a realistic basis for truly integrated education.
“There is a value for diversity, and that benefits not only the children in the program, but in the long run it ultimately benefits society,” notes Michael Smith, chair of the department of sociology at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a leading member of the National Alliance of Black School Educators. But, he adds, interdistrict Chapter 220 has a number of serious problems and continues in large part because people don’t want to confront residential segregation in Milwaukee.
“No one even tries to come up with anything more creative anymore,” he notes. “The suburbs enjoy their autonomy and their higher tax base, and they’re not going to share that with Milwaukee. Because there is no political belief this will ever change, we are stuck with what we have, and that is Chapter 220.”
What is Chapter 220?
Chapter 220 consists of two components. First is the interdistrict program, under which minority children in MPS voluntarily attend suburban schools, and white suburban children attend MPS. This program cost $64 million in 1993-94, at a cost of about $10,000 per student. Second is the intradistrict program, which buses children within MPS to achieve racial balance. This program cost $24.5 million in 1993-94.
While the current controversy centers around interdistrict Chapter 220, the intradistrict program historically has been the subject of the most intense criticism. First, the intradistrict program is expensive, and the argument is that the money could be better spent on improving academics rather than on busing. Second, it is a largely involuntary busing program whose brunt is borne by the African-American community. Third, even supporters of integration acknowledge that the intradistrict busing relies on a crazy-quilt pattern of unnecessarily extensive busing that makes it difficult to link schooling with community — an untenable situation that might have been avoided if the school board had not rejected a proposal by grass-roots activists in the 1970s for the pairing and clustering of schools in nearby neighborhoods. There has been little discussion in recent years on how to best achieve integration within the MPS system, however, and the painful status quo continues. The issue is further complicated because money would be needed for busing within MPS regardless. There simply are not enough schools in the neighborhoods where Black children live, and Milwaukee voters have rejected proposals to build more schools in those neighborhoods.
Chapter 220 has its origins in a 1976 federal court order mandating desegregation. What is sometimes lost in current discussions is the virulently racist segregation that ruled MPS for many decades. Not only were facilities in central city neighborhoods far inferior, but the Milwaukee School Board went to extraordinary lengths to keep blacks and whites apart. During an “intact busing” scheme in the early 1950s, for instance, African-American children were bused en masse to schools on the white south side, kept in separate classes, and even bused back to their central city neighborhood for lunch so they wouldn’t mingle with white children in the cafeteria. The racist views of the then-reigning School Board were perhaps best summed up by Lorraine Radtke, who complained that inner-city children “can’t understand our plumbing. You have urination in water bubblers.”
Racist views, while perhaps expressed less crassly, also dominated much suburban thinking at the time. As far as interdistrict integration was concerned, progress was unbearably slow and limited. Thus the MPS and NAACP filed a lawsuit in 1984 against 24 suburban districts and the state. The suit was settled out of court in 1987 in an agreement that set up the existing Chapter 220 program.
Little known to most people, that 1987 settlement also included housing measures to counter residential segregation. Never seriously funded or pursued, the housing programs died a quiet death. “Chapter 220 was originally seen as both a housing and school program,” notes MPS School Board President Mary Bills. “But we never addressed the housing.
Thus Chapter 220 is the only game in town [regarding integration]. That’s the pathos of this — that after 20 years it is still the only game in town.”
Over the years the interdistrict Chapter 220 program has grown, and it is currently the only state-funded initiative promoting integration. In the 1993-94 school year, 5,679 MPS minority students transferred to suburban schools and 775 white suburban students attended MPS. While suburban participation in MPS has declined in recent years, MPS transfers have grown, and demand far exceeds capacity. In the 1994-95 school year, for instance, roughly 2,700 MPS minority students applied for the 969 new suburban seats, according to MPS figures. As a result of the Chapter 220 program, the segregation in suburban schools has also decreased. While only 5.1% of the students in the suburbs were minorities in 1983, that figure had increased to 13.4% by 1993.
But the cost of the interdistrict program has skyrocketed, from $17.6 million in 1986-87 to $64 million in 1993-94. One of the controversies is the amount of money given to suburbs beyond the cost of participating in the program. This has its origins in the legislature’s decision to use money to make interdistrict Chapter 220 palatable to those resistant to integration. Not only were suburbs reimbursed the full cost of tuition, but they received 20% more money, known as “bonus aid,” for taking transfer students equal to at least 5% of the district’s student population. Further, MPS was still able to count students transferring to the suburbs when determining how much money it should receive in state aid, a provision referred to as “sender aid.”
Most people agree that the “bonus aid” is little more than hush money to quell complaints, and few rise to its defense. Under the governor’s current budget, the $6.4 million in bonus aid is eliminated. More problematic is the governor’s proposal to cap payments to suburbs at $7,000 per Chapter 220 pupil. Suburbs have made clear that they will take part in Chapter 220 only if they are reimbursed the full cost of tuition for transferring students. Yet a number of suburbs have a per-pupil cost above $7,000. The Nicolet High School District, for example, will spent approximately $11,600 per student this year.
MPS Superintendent Howard Fuller, who has long opposed the intradistrict integration program, told Rethinking Schools that he favors continuation of the interdistrict program. “I believe that 220 is an important option for those minority parents who are interested in integration,” he said. “There is a very limited set of options for them, given the demographics of Milwaukee. The issues were, and are, the cost.”
Fuller said he believes MPS ought to support full tuition payments for suburbs, but that the suburbs should support the continuation of sender aid to Milwaukee.
Screening and Selectivity
When the MPS School Board proposed new, individual agreements with the suburbs, it sought to address three other key controversies. These are: the suburbs’ ability to screen MPS students; the intransigence by some suburbs to accepting sufficient numbers of African-American students; and the automatic set-aside in popular MPS specialty schools for suburban transfers. These are not part of the legislation, but of the agreement between MPS and the suburbs. The new agreement would also eliminate the Compact for Educational Opportunity, an oversight body.
Under the current agreement, suburbs are allowed to reject MPS students who have attendance or discipline problems. MPS has proposed that suburbs can reject only those students who had been expelled during the application period. While a seemingly small point, the controversy points to the larger problem of labeling kids based on their residence and the fear that the suburbs were creaming off the best MPS students.
“The sense of outrage on the city side is in part based on the suburbs’ feeling that they can pick and choose who becomes part of the suburban school community,” notes attorney Lynch.
MPS has also asked that as part of the new agreement, the suburbs educate African-American students in the same proportion as they are represented in the MPS population. A number of suburbs have a history of wooing Asian students.
The New Berlin district, for example, accepted 120 minority transfer students in 1993-94, and 100 of them were Asians. In Oak Creek-Franklin School District, Asian students compose 42% of the transfer students. Within MPS, however, Asians account for only 2.95% of the student population.
Finally, MPS is proposing that white suburban students who transfer to Milwaukee not be given preference at popular specialty schools. Currently, 10% of the available seats at specialty schools are reserved for white suburban transfers. This has long been a sore point with many white Milwaukee residents, who feel they are, in essence, being penalized for choosing to live in the city. Under the new MPS proposal, suburban transfers would be included in the lottery for specialty schools on the same basis as Milwaukee students.
Looming over the debate has been the question of academic achievement and whether MPS students perform better academically if they attend suburban schools. Studies have tended to show modest gains. But everyone acknowledges that it has been impossible to make any claims with certainty because there has never been a well-controlled study that looks at Chapter 220 students over time.
At public hearings on the controversy, however, articulate and angry parents of Chapter 220 students consistently spoke in defense of Chapter 220. They argued that the program’s value went far beyond what might be measured on standardized tests. It is a contention supported by national research.
Robert Crain, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University Teachers College, notes that longitudinal studies on desegregation show that its value lies more in opening up college and career opportunities for African Americans. For Blacks, attending desegregated schools means they are more likely able to cope with the pressures of a largely white college or a largely white work situation such as in corporate business, law, or medicine.
“All in all, it seems that what school desegregation does, which is even more important than the achievement in test scores, is that it prepares white and Black students to work in a multiethnic world successfully,” Crain said.
Orfield, meanwhile, links dwindling support for integration and educational opportunities for African Americans with the broader conservative onslaught. “I don’t know of any integrationists who don’t favor effective compensatory education, or who believe there is anything magic about sitting next to a white kid, or who believe that integration is a panacea. It is one of any number of things that need to be done, most of which are not being done …
“Conservatives have reconstructed history to say there was a group of simple-minded people who said integration was a cure-all. And obviously, it hasn’t cured all the problems. Therefore, they argue, we should stop doing it and maybe we should just get vouchers and let the market solve these things.
“Almost all integrationists are for both integration and quality education,” Orfield concluded. “The conservative leaders are