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Plan for All-Black Milwaukee District Rejected

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A controversial proposal to create an autonomous, mostly black, school district within the city of Milwaukee fizzled as the Wisconsin legislature ended its recent special session.

But proponents of the measure say the educational concerns that spawned the idea still must be addressed.

"We brought the whole issue of the education of our poor, black kids up front and center so now it has to be dealt with,'' said Howard Fuller, dean of general education at Milwaukee Area Technical College and a leading proponent of the idea.

The plan for the separate "North Division'' school district in Milwaukee had gained unexpected momentum several weeks ago when the state's Assembly voted, 61 to 36, to approve its creation. The proposal died in a conference committee shortly before the special session ended on April 20.

It had been advanced by prominent black leaders in the city who are dissatisfied with the quality of education for black children in Milwaukee's poorest inner-city neighborhoods. They proposed creating a small, separate district, operated by a community board, where innovative educational approaches could be instituted.

An estimated 99 percent of the children currently attending school in the neighborhood proposed for the separate district are black.

Opponents of the plan said it was "segregationist'' in nature.

"And separate is not equal,'' said State Representative Marcia Coggs, a Milwaukee Democrat who fought against the plan.

Ms. Coggs was among more than parents, teachers, and school administrators from the city who came to the state capitol to protest the idea during the final days of the session. The rally was funded by the Milwaukee Public Schools, whose representatives had lobbied hard to defeat the bill.

"The whole debate was good in a sense,'' Ms. Coggs said last week. "It let our city know we're not satisfied with the education of our black children.''

"I think they got the message loud and clear,'' she added.

Milwaukee 'Marshall Plan'

Lawmakers approved a compromise measure that earmarks $75,000 for the development of a "Marshall plan'' for improving Milwaukee's schools. Another $350,000, set aside in an existing program for at-risk children across the state, was directed to be spent in the five elementary schools in the proposed "North Division'' area.

Another controversial measure aimed at Milwaukee schools--Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's "parental choice'' plan--also failed to survive the session.

Similar to the "tuition voucher'' proposal espoused by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, the Governor's plan would have provided the means for disadvantaged parents in the city's schools to send their children to any public or private school of their choice.

It was discarded during legislative committee meetings.

"I just don't think legislators were ready to support private schools with public funds,'' said Douglas Haselow, a lobbyist for the Milwaukee school district.

The proposal was among several contentious topics that occupied legislators during the special session, which was called after lawmakers failed to approve a budget during the regular session that ended in March. (See Education Week, April 6, 1988.)

Other Action

The $5.58-billion budget finally approved includes some heavily debated proposals aimed at curbing local property taxes.

One of the bills approved provides $240 million in new state aid--$90 million of it directed to local schools.

It also imposes cost controls on school districts and local governments for the next four years. With some exceptions, those governing bodies would be permitted only to increase spending at the rate of inflation.

Governor Thompson, who lobbied hard for the concept, has said he is considering vetoing aspects of the bill because "it doesn't go far enough.''

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