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Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Milwaukee Fights Loss of White Students in Choice Plan

Milwaukee Fights Loss of White Students in Choice Plan

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Milwaukee school officials are so certain that a decision to include white students from their city in the state's new open-enrollment program will amplify racial imbalances that they are fighting it in court.

The Milwaukee school board voted last month to challenge the state superintendent's ruling this summer that included the city's white students in the program. The interdistrict-choice plan allows students to attend schools both within and outside their local districts.

The plan was part of the state's biennial budget passed last year, and is separate from the controversial voucher program that provides tuition for poor Milwaukee students to attend private schools in the city.

Officials in the 104,000-student system had determined that the open-enrollment program ran counter to a racial-balance plan the district adopted in 1976 as part of court-ordered desegregation.

Known as Chapter 220, that plan allows minority students to transfer to suburban schools and white suburban students to attend Milwaukee schools.

Last spring, the district rejected requests from white Milwaukee students, who make up about 20 percent of the district's enrollment, to transfer to suburban schools under the state choice program.

199 Students Rejected

But on July 30, state Superintendent John T. Benson ruled that the district had not made the case that the new program worked against its desegregation goals, and he overturned the denials issued to whitestudents who appealed the rejections.

"The choice to leave [the Milwaukee public schools] should not be limited to minority students," he said in July. "If parents believe their children will be better served in a public school outside of MPS, they should have the same opportunity as parents in the rest of the state."

According to the state, 272 Milwaukee students applied to transfer to a neighboring district this year. The district approved all 73 requests from minority students but rejected the 199 white students who applied. Of those rejections, 86 students appealed and won reversals from Mr. Benson.

A district spokeswoman, Karen Salzbrenner, said last week that neither she nor board officials could comment on the district's appeal, which was filed in county circuit court Aug. 24 by City Attorney Grant F. Langley.

But a press release outlining the district's position accuses the state education department of "complete disregard" for Milwaukee's desegregation goals. The district also believes that the state has "exceeded its limited statutory authority by substituting its judgment for [the district's] on the racial-balance issue," the release states.

Mayor John O. Norquist has opposed the district's position, saying that interdistrict choice gives parents eyeing well-financed suburban districts one more reason to keep living in the city.

The 'Best Possible Education'

"The mayor's really enthusiastic about this," said Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the Democratic mayor. "Milwaukee will soon be the best place to educate kids in Wisconsin because of all the options. Schools will no longer be a reason to leave."

John Poe, a white Milwaukee father of two, agreed. His oldest child, a son, is attending kindergarten in nearby Wauwatosa through the open-enrollment program. Mr. Poe said he believes the nearby suburban district can better serve his son.

"My primary motivation is to get the best possible education for my children," he said. The decision by Mr. Benson was a relief, he said, adding that his family is no longer considering moving out of the city.

And some critics of the Milwaukee district say that its efforts to promote racial diversify come too late.

State Rep. Annette Polly Williams, a Milwaukee Democrat who wrote the state's 1990 voucher program for the city, said that desegregation in the state's largest district is a moot point.

"White people have already left the system," she said. "You can't stop the 20 percent of white students remaining from exercising the same options [as minorities]."

Ms. Williams added that the fight in Milwaukee shouldn't come down to a relatively few white students who want to opt out of the system, but should instead be for saving "thousands of black, Hispanic, and low-income students in poor and failing urban schools here."

"Poor families are the people who need the most options," she said. "They're the ones being left out and left behind."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 6

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Correction: 
This sentence should read "Steve Poe, a white Milwaukee father of two, agreed."

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