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In Milwaukee, Dissatisfied Black Leaders Draw Ire With 'Mostly Black' District plan

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A proposal by prominent black leaders in Milwaukee to create an autonomous, mostly black school district in the city is gaining momentum just as officials prepare to implement a newly approved, metropolitan-wide desegregation plan.

Critics of the interdistrict desegregation plan, approved by a federal district judge on Oct. 22, say it does not go far enough in ensuring that students in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Milwaukee's north side will receive a quality education.

"For a long time, it has been clear that the city's schools have not been working to educate poor black children, whether or not they were in the integrated schools," said Howard Fuller, dean of education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College and a driving force behind the autonomous-district proposal.

He and other black leaders say a more equitable solution would be to grant the community whose needs are going unmet local control over its schools.

"Our view is that this is primarily an issue of size," he explained. "A smaller district could help us create the conditions that research says are needed for effective schools--high expectations, greater parental involvement, accountability, and improved teacher morale."

But opponents of the proposal charge that it would represent a return to the "separate but equal" doctrine struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954.

"'Separate but equal' is not the law of this land," said Patrick B. McDonnell, special deputy city attorney, whose office has issued an opinion advising the Milwaukee school board that the formation of the proposed district would be deemed unconstitutional.

Regardless of the sponsors' intent, Mr. McDonnell maintained, the courts would be likely to find that racial separation was the predominant reason for establishing the district.

Because the Milwaukee schools have not been declared "unitary," or legally desegregated, he added, creation of the new district "might be viewed even more critically by the courts--they might not need to find an intent to discriminate" to find the plan unconstitutional.

Nine elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school would be included in the new district under the current proposal.

Ninety-seven percent of the students living within the proposed district's boundaries are black, but because two of the schools are specialty schools that attract some white students from other parts of the city, the racial composition of the student body in the 11 schools is 90 percent black.

"Our fundamental point is that it is difficult to resegregate something that has never been integrated in the first place," Mr. Fuller said.

The focus of the debate should not be racial separation, he contends, but educational quality.

The bureaucracy needed to operate the 96,000-student school system, he said, "is not capable of making the types of changes that are necessary to truly reform schools."

Desegregation Plan Approved The desegregation plan approved last month by U.S. District Judge Thomas J. Curran will greatly in4crease the number of spaces allotted to inner-city minority students who choose to enroll in any of 24 suburban districts.

A coordinating council with members from each of the participating districts is being formed to oversee the plan's implementation. A provision designed to promote housing integration in the area is already being implemented, and other educational aspects of the plan will be phased in over the next few years.

But black leaders who have lent their support to the autonomous-district proposal say that unlike the desegregation plan, it promises to focus on educational quality rather than student transportation.

"I don't know that there will be anything significant except the transportation of more black students" under the court-approved plan, said Wesley Scott, former executive director of the Milwaukee Urban League.

"Mixing the bodies is not in itself an assurance of a quality education. Indeed, it has not been that," said Mr. Scott, who has been a longtime advocate of integration but now serves on the steering committee developing and promoting the autonomous-district proposal.

"If you try something, and it doesn't succeed, you have to try again with something else," he said, explaining his support for a plan that defies the conventional principles of desegregrationists.

Felmers O. Chaney, president of the Milwaukee branch of the naacp, said that he, too, has problems with the new desegregation plan but opposes the separatist movement. "If we work at it, we can do something with the settlement we've got."

"I intend to keep everybody's feet to the fire," he said.

Experts on both sides of the issue, however, agree that the current quality of schools on the north side is a valid concern.

David Tatel, a nationally known school-desegregation lawyer who helped craft the Milwaukee desegregation plan, said that "there is concern throughout the community about the quality of education in these particular schools."

"But my sense is that everybody is trying to improve the quality of programs in those schools," added Mr. Tatel, who said he believes the creation of a mostly black district would be found unconstitutional by the courts.

The achievement gaps between white and black students in the district "are extraordinarily high," according to John Witte, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the executive director of a commission that in 1985 completed a comprehensive analysis of racial inequality in the district.

"If Mr. Fuller became superintendent of the proposed school district, he would improve those schools," Mr. Witte said. He added, however, that he opposes the plan because the creation of a mostly black district might, in his words, "create racial tension in the city and undercut any desegregation."

As envisioned by its supporters, the new district would have its own school board, with all of the powers vested in other boards in the state, including the ability to levy taxes.

But critics charge that the low property values in the area would not provide an adequate tax base for an autonomous school district.

In addition, said the naacp's Mr. Chaney, "there's always a problem of finances and whatnot when you have a separate black issue." He pointed to the persistent financial woes of the nation's predominantly black colleges and universities.

But Mr. Fuller said that "with the way the school-aid formula works, we have no question about our ability to finance this."

He said the district could count on funding from four sources: the school-aid formula, property taxes, state categorical programs, and Chapter 220, a state program that provides financial incentives to districts that send students to another district for purposes of racial integration.

Under current conditions, the proposed district would have to send a substantial proportion of its students to other districts, because its facilities can accommodate only about half of the students living within the suggested boundaries. Supporters of the plan estimate that the number of students involved is more than 15,600; the 11 schools the district would encompass serve only about 8,000.

Most of the new schools built in Milwaukee over the past 30 years, Mr. Fuller said, have been located in white neighborhoods. He attributed that fact to the school leadership's willingness to allow blacks to be bused to white neighborhoods and their reluctance to reverse the burden.

In addition, Mr. Fuller said, older schools in the proposed district have been torn down.

The space shortage might pose an even greater problem in light of calls by some supporters to reserve up to 35 percent of the seats in the new district for students who wish to transfer in from other districts.

Legislature To Decide

The Wisconsin legislature will ultimately decide the fate of the proposal. Two state representatives with constituents in the proposed district have agreed to sponsor legis4lation that embodies the plan.

But the University of Wisconsin's Mr. Witte and others give the effort little chance of success. "I can't believe a majority of legislators would support this plan," he said.

Mr. Fuller insists, however, that the only problem some legislators have with the plan is that they feel they "ought to break up the entire system."

Some 450 local residents attended a meeting on the matter last month, and most expressed support for the autonomous-district proposal, according to its sponsors.

But Mr. Chaney discounted the show of support. "If you have 400 people out of 250,000 blacks in this city, you ain't raising no hell," he said. He added that the goals of the movement could be achieved "if you give your principals and your teachers more authority."

The Milwaukee system is currently searching for a new superintendent, and some observers suggest that Mr. Fuller is using this proposal to campaign for the job.

But he denies he is interested in the post.

"It doesn't matter who, or what race" is chosen to fill the post, he said. "I've concluded that the only thing positive that any superintendent could do is move in and help dismantle the system."

"We're producing kids who will have no chance of making it in this society," Mr. Fuller said, "and we're trying to do something about it."

Supporters of the plan insist that they will see it through to fruition, despite the magnitude of the opposition they face.

"The question of educating blacks is being discussed in levels of this city where it has not been discussed before," said Mr. Scott. "Sometimes you have to hit a mule in the head and get its attention before it will pull the load."

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