For the past couple of days, I've been looking at the question of why many of today's schools remain racially and ethnically identifiable. The dominant view among academics and activists is that the United States was on its way to creating racially desegregated schools and achieving greater educational equality during the late 1960s and early 1970s. According to this view, aggressive governmental efforts at the redistribution of students and resources did not achieve their goals only because policy makers lost the will to push these efforts.
I don't think the actual history of school desegregation supports that dominant interpretation. Instead, I think school desegregation largely failed precisely because it was a coercive, top-down attempt at social engineering. I began looking at this issue by tracing the history of school desegregation in two highly influential districts, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Both of these have been widely presented as "success stories," although I think the facts belie such a presentation. Today, I'll look at another district, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
When the Supreme Court handed down the Brown decision, citizens of Wisconsin generally regarded the Court’s action favorably, but thought that it concerned other places. Wisconsin’s laws, like those of several other northern states and in contrast to the laws of the south, prohibited segregated schooling. Several of Milwaukee’s schools were about half black and half white, and the city’s free transfer system made it possible for black children to enroll in predominantly white schools.[ii]
During the 1950s, a boom in manufacturing drew black Americans from the South to Milwaukee at a rapid pace. Milwaukee’s black population grew much faster than that of many other northern cities, including Chicago and Detroit. The recent migrants flowed into the center of the city, creating rapidly expanding black neighborhoods with residents of much more limited educational backgrounds than those of earlier black and white citizens.
In order to address the needs of newly arrived children with limited academic skills, Milwaukee schools in the late 1950s developed programs of compensatory education. These programs tended to separate the southern-origin black students from others precisely because compensatory education was intended to address the special requirements of the migrants. School segregation, then, came from diverse educational needs, as well as from segregated housing and various forms of discrimination.
As Milwaukee’s black population grew within the city center, so did the number of public schools with mainly black citizens. While there had been only seven predominantly black schools in 1950, there were an estimated twenty-three by 1964.[iii] In the decade after Brown as the demand grew for schools that were truly integrated, and not simply open to enrollment without racial discrimination, many black citizens began to see the increasing number of mainly black schools as evidence of an educational ghetto.
When inner-city schools became over-crowded as a consequence of the rapidly increasing black population, the Milwaukee school board bused students from the crowded schools to other less-crowded schools, but it maintained a practice known as “intact busing.” This meant that bused black students formed separate classrooms within white schools, a phenomenon that, in retrospect, ironically mirrored later decades’ white magnet classes within black schools.
Opponents of racially identifiable schools joined together in the early 1960s under the leadership of civil rights attorney and NAACP president Lloyd Barbee. Barbee and his followers demanded that the school district place desegregation at the top of its agenda, integrate the intact busing students, and develop a comprehensive desegregation plan. When the school board delayed, the NAACP and its associates turned to protests and legal action.
During the mid-1960s, activists joined together to form the Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC), demanding integration by marching and boycotting segregated black schools. Lloyd Barbee, the chairman of MUSIC and by now elected a state legislator, also acted as attorney in the desegregation case of Amos v. Board, filed in 1965 and supported in part by funds from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Long delayed by school board maneuvering, the case finally went to trial in September 197
While the case made its way through the court, there were efforts to resolve the situation by legislative means. Democratic Assemblyman Dennis J. Conta proposed, in the spring of 1975, that the state legislature merge suburban and city schools into a single school district. The mainly white suburban districts of Whitefish Bay and Shorewood, just north of the city, would be joined together with Milwaukee. At the high school level, this would make possible transfers among Milwaukee’s Lincoln High School (94 percent black), Milwaukee’s Riverside (61 percent black), Shorewood High (98 percent white), and Whitefish Bay High (99 percent white).
Assemblyman Conta proposed to use financial incentives to get the white schools to take minority students, and to cap transfer students at 20 percent of each student body in order to avoid white flight.[iv] This recognition of the need to reconcile the divergent interests and motivations of different demographic groups held out some possibility of successful, if limited, desegregation. Conta’s attempt to move desegregation from the federal court to the legislature received insufficient support from his fellow legislators, though, and this attempt at self-imposed metropolitan desegregation failed.
In January 1976, Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled that Milwaukee schools were segregated and that the segregation had been intentionally established by the school board. The judge decreed that black enrollments needed to be driven down between 25 to 45 percent in one third of Milwaukee’s schools during the 1975-76 school year and to go down by a similar proportion in the following two years. There was indeed substantial basis to the declaration that the schools in Milwaukee were racially segregated. In 158 schools, over 100 were made up of more than 90 percent of a single race.[v]
Judge Reynolds’ demand was mathematically implausible, though. The proportion of black students in the system had been increasing steadily, from 21 percent of students in the district when the suit began, to 34 percent by the time of the decision. Projections indicated that black students would make up 50 percent of those in the district by 1980.[vi] The judge does not seem to have given serious consideration to the problem of making black enrollments at specific schools go down rapidly when black enrollments overall were rising at such a rate, or to the possibility that his own decision might speed up the shrinking of white enrollments.
Following a second desegregation trial in 1978, the Milwaukee school board began to make serious efforts at desegregation. The school system as a whole did reach the predicted half-white, half-black composition in the early 1980s. This was largely due to the disappearance of whites from the city’s public school system, though, so it did not bode well for future plans to distribute black and white students.
Although Assemblyman Conta’s attempt at metropolitan transfers failed, the state of Wisconsin did enact legislation to promote voluntary urban-suburban desegregation throughout the state. Adopted in 1976, Wisconsin Chapter 220 law provided extra funding to white suburban schools that would accept black students from majority black districts. This program has met with some criticism because it has been extremely expensive and, while making it possible for some individual black students to have a wider range of educational choices, it has tended to funnel money into already well-heeled schools.
For Milwaukee, with the largest black population in the state, the program also did not bring about any kind of desegregation. Even with Milwaukee’s Chapter 220 inter-district transfers, only 17 percent of Milwaukee’s public school students were white in the 2004 school year. Black students, at sixty percent, made up the majority. Hispanics, at 18 percent, were slightly more numerous than whites.
Schools are generally judged to be desegregated if relevant racial or ethnic groups are within plus or minus fifteen percent of their representation as a whole in the district. For Milwaukee, this means that when Judge Reynolds made his 1976 decision, any desegregated school would have been a majority white school, but at least one in five of its students would have been black. By 2004, though, a Milwaukee school could be considered “desegregated” if only three percent of its students were white. These are the paradoxical mathematics of racial redistribution.
As in other districts with large minority populations around the country, "diversity" came to mean more possibilities of contact between black students and the growing Hispanic population, since most of the whites had settled in the suburban fringe. In 2012-2013, Milwaukee public school students were 55.4% black, 24.0% Hispanic, and 13.9% white. Another 5.5% of students were Asian. A number of schools had almost no white students.
Carver Academy Elementary School, for example, was 91.4% black in 2012-2013. Congress Elementary was 94.4% black. Highmount Elementary was 90.1% black. Lincoln Middle School was 65.4% black and 25.3% Hispanic. The small Southeastern Middle School had only black students. Wedgewood Middle School was 91.9% black. James Madison High School was 93.0% black. Vincent High was 91.1% black.[vii]
By 2013, the official literature on the Chapter 220 inter-district transfer described the program as aimed at giving minority students in the North, Central, and South Regions of Milwaukee the opportunity "to attend schools in suburban areas that are predominantly non-minority (white)." This would benefit only a limited number of individual minority students and was not intended to break down district segregation. The MPS literature warned potential applicants that "seats are limited in the Chapter 220 Program and no student is guaranteed a seat."[viii]
The desirability of getting out of central Milwaukee and to the suburbs was clear. A planning document prepared by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment &Training Institute in 2009 reported that "[i]n the 2008-2009 school year, 92% of MPS students attended a school where over half of the children were poor [bold in original] (as measured by eligibility for free lunch, or family income below 130% of poverty). Yet, only 4% of suburban and outer ring public school students in the four-county area were in school buildings where over half of the children were poor."[ix]
Academic results reflected the concentration of minority students and socioeconomic disadvantage within Milwaukee. The 2009 NAEP results showed that Milwaukee students scored substantially below others in the state, in other large cities, and across the nation. These results also showed that racial achievement gaps remained. Only 28% of black Milwaukee 8th graders scored at or above the basic level in mathematics, compared to 61% of whites and 43% of Hispanics. In reading, 41% of Milwaukee black 8th graders scored at or above the basic level, compared to 78% of whites and 62% of Hispanics.
Within each racial/ethnic group Milwaukee 8th graders were less likely to be at or above the basic level than their peers in the rest of the state, in big cities throughout the country, or in national public schools.[x] Going to school in Milwaukee, rather than outside of it, greatly increased the probability that schoolmates would be low achievers. The more minority students in the classroom, the lower the general level of achievement, and the general level of achievement would be particularly low in a minority concentration classroom inside Milwaukee.
Individual minority families, then, had a genuine interest in getting to schools out in the suburbs. The Chapter 220 transfers, therefore, could provide good options in the educational marketplace for them. By the same token, though, families in the suburbs had a genuine interest in minimizing the flow of students out of the central city. As a consequence, the voluntary transfers could make greater educational opportunities to some, but they could not erase racial and socioeconomic inequalities.
[i] Much of the account of the Wisconsin case is drawn from Jack Dougherty, More Than One Struggle: The Evolution of Black School Reform in Milwaukee (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).
[iv] Paul Delaney, “Wisconsin Ponders a Plan for State to Legislate Desegregation of Four Schools in Milwaukee and Suburbs,” New York Times, April 13, 1975, 22.
[v] Dougherty, More Than One Struggle, 153.
[vii]Wisconsin Information System for Education, Data Dashboard, accessed October 24, 2013, http://wisedash.dpi.wi.gov/Dashboard/portalHome.jsp.
[viii]Milwaukee Public Schools. Suburban School Opportunities: Chapter 220 Program for Milwaukee Students for Fall 2013. (Milwaukee: Office of Family Services, February 2013), 1.
[ix] University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute. Socio-Economic Analysis of Issues Facing Milwaukee Public School Students and Their Families.(Milwaukee: Employment & Training Institute: 2013), 21.
[x]MPS NAEP Data, Mathematics; MPS NAEP Data, Reading, the Milwaukee Public Schools website, accessed October 25, 2013, http://mpsportal.milwaukee.k12.wi.us/portal/server.pt/comm/assessment/415/assessment/38462.