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Negotiations in Milwaukee Stymied

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Copyright 1987 Prospects for a smooth end to Milwaukee's school-desegregation suit against 24 neighboring suburbs and the State of Wisconsin appear to be dimming as four suburban districts continue their refusal to join a comprehensive, out-of-court settlement ratified by the other parties.

The Milwaukee school board has indicated through its lawyers that it will continue to press its case against the four districts, which it charges with contributing to racial segregation within the city's schools. A trial in the lawsuit was adjourned this summer when it appeared that a voluntary settlement was near. (See Education Week, April 29, 1987.)

Because the trial has not yet been concluded, there has been no ruling on the question of whether the suburban districts, including those refusing to join the agreement, have committed acts that contribute to student segregation in the Milwaukee schools.

Lawyers for the four dissenting districts are arguing that, in the absence of such a ruling, their systems should not be included in any proposed remedies. The four were among seven suburban-district plaintiffs that had also declined to participate in an existing voluntary student-transfer arrangement the new agreement is designed to bolster.

Hearing Scheduled Next Month

Last week, U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Curran scheduled a "fairness" hearing on Oct. 13. Its purpose is to determine if the proposed settlement could be realistically implemented and to ensure that it would safeguard the interests of Milwaukee's minority students.

Despite the complications that are likely to arise if the four districts continue to hold out,lawyers for the city schools are calling the agreement a significant improvement over settlements in metropolitan-wide desegregation cases elsewhere.

They cite as evidence an unprecedented level of state support for the plan, as well as its distinctive provisions designed to promote housing integration in the suburbs.

A turning point in the negotiations between parties in the suit was reached in late July, when Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and Herbert J. Grover, state superintendent of schools, agreed to propose legislation providing special aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools. The propos4al would give the district $30 million over the next six years for programs to address the academic deficiencies of disadvantaged students.

In addition, Governor Thompson agreed to work toward the establishment of loan subsidies and counseling and recruitment programs intended to promote greater residential integration in Milwaukee's suburbs.

The agreement would more thandouble the number of spaces allotted to inner-city minority students in the suburban districts under an existing voluntary transfer plan known as Chapter 220.

In addition to accepting more minority students, the suburban districts would agree to undertake new efforts to recruit minority teachers and minimize the use of test scores and other screening devices that critics charge are used to select only the most academically able minority students for inter-district transfers.

In turn, the Milwaukee schools would agree to expand existing specialty programs that have proven to be a popular attraction for white suburban students.

Milwaukee school officials would also be committed to drafting a five-year plan for the improvement of education for all students in the district.

The settlement also provides for the establishment of a coordinating council, comprising members from each of the participating districts, that would oversee its implementation.

Under terms of the agreement, none of the parties to the suit would be required to admit any illegal acts.

In addition, all parties would pledge not to take any actions, such as pursuing further litigation, that could undermine the settlement.

Other Developments

In other desegregation-related developments:

A new student-assignment plan that eliminates crosstown busing for most elementary students in Aus8tin, Tex., took effect last week, following unsuccessful legal challenges from civil-rights groups that opposed the move.

Under the new neighborhood-school plan, 16 of the district's elementary schools have minority enrollments of more than 80 percent. The district's board of trustees has agreed to finance enrichment programs for these schools that will include lower pupil-teacher ratios, full-day pre-kindergarten classes, and discretionary funds for principals.

Local civil-rights groups have vowed to continue their opposition to the plan. Federal judges at both the district and appellate levels refused earlier this year to reopen the 17-year-old desegregation lawsuit that led to the busing plan's implementation in 1980.

U.S. District Judge William O'Kelley will hear closing arguments this month before ruling on a petition by school officials in Dekalb County, Ga., to have that system's schools declared "unitary," or fully desegregated.

Lawyers for a group of black parents argued in a three-week trial this summer that the system's predominantly black schools receive fewer resources and provide schooling inferior to that offered in its white-majority schools.

School officials are seeking to end the 18-year-old lawsuit by arguing that current patterns of student attendance and performance are due chiefly to shifting demographics, not to any policies that have promoted segregation.

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