Education Opinion


May 03, 2000 4 min read

To the Editor:

Can integration be saved from the integrationists? (“How School Choice Can Promote Integration,” Commentary, April 12, 2000). When I was elected to the Milwaukee school board three years ago, I naively assumed that integration meant having a mix of black children and white children and children of other backgrounds all learning together in a school. Yet I found that proposals that would lead to more integration were savagely attacked by groups that claimed to be keepers of the integrationist flame. The same groups were adamant defenders of policies driving white and middle-class families out of the city, leading to growing racial separation.

Recently, an explanation of sorts appeared in The New York Times’ “Week in Review” section (April 2, 2000), where Jeffrey Rosen, writing on “The Lost Promise of Integration,” makes it abundantly clear that integration is not true integration unless it is coercive. He peppers his article with quotes such as “You can’t reconcile choice with diversity,” and “No noncoercive mechanism for racial integration ... has evolved.” In other words, school integration is not true integration unless at least some of the children or their families don’t want them to be there.

As many cities found 20 or so years ago, coercive integration, with its accompanying busing and racially based decisionmaking, can vastly increase the number of schools with a diverse population in a very short time. Milwaukee, for example, quickly went from few racially diverse schools to almost all of its schools’ being racially diverse.

But as these same cities discovered, integration obtained through coercion is short-lived. The number of schools counted as nonintegrated in Milwaukee rose from 11 to 99 in 12 years. One big factor was a drop in the proportion of white students, from around 70 percent of total enrollment before the integration plan started to 16 percent today.

To be successful, coercive integration depends on a level of population control incompatible with liberal democracy. Lacking such controls, middle-class parents can escape the coercion by moving to the next town or county. Eventually, segregation between neighborhoods within a city is replaced by segregation between a city and its suburbs.

Besides being ineffective as a means of long-range integration, coercive integration has several other bad effects on a school system:

•It corrupts the school culture by basing decisions primarily on the child’s race, rather than on what is in the child’s best interests.

•It pits parents against the schools and their boards, who tell them that meeting the racial numbers is more important than their child’s education.

•It encourages a blame-the-customer attitude. Racism, rather than school quality, becomes an easy explanation for why parents leave the schools.

•It ignores whether true integration takes place within the school, so long as the overall numbers meet the goal. Often, there are very different achievement levels between races in a nominally integrated school.

Do recent court opinions against race-based decisionmaking presage the death of integration? Consider the following examples, taken from the Milwaukee experience:

•Three years ago, the Milwaukee school board changed its policy to allow high schools to institute admissions processes. At Rufus King High School, prior to the change, a black student had a one in six chance of being accepted. In the year following the change, all black students meeting the requirements were accepted, and there has been a large jump in the number of black students taking advanced courses.

•Two years ago, the courts allowed the expansion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program to religious schools. The population of many parochial schools is predominantly white. The population qualifying for vouchers is predominantly black, as is the public school system.

•Milwaukee has several schools in predominantly white neighborhoods whose student population is predominantly black. In most cases, the students attending these schools did not choose them; they were assigned to them because there was no room in their local schools. A plan is now under way to increase capacity in the overcrowded inner-city areas, so that any child wishing to attend a neighborhood school may do so.

Each of these changes was motivated primarily by the desire to give families more choices, and each has been attacked as “resegregation” by the local integration establishment. Yet I would argue that each moves us in the direction of more integration.

The first example, in particular, has a double-barreled impact on integration. It reassures parents that education will not have to be watered down, helping stabilize the population. In addition, by admitting students who have shown they are able and willing to undertake a rigorous academic program, it narrows the racial gap experienced by most nominally integrated urban high schools.

Giving poor minority students the wherewithal to attend majority white schools, as in the second example, would clearly seem to move us in the direction of more integration. The same could be said about encouraging more white students to attend schools that are mainly black, as in the third.

Integration based on coercion has not and cannot work. Stable integration can only come when parents choose to send their children to integrated schools in the belief that those schools best serve the interests of their children. By sounding the death knell for coercive integration, the courts offer us a chance to build true integration based on quality education for all children.

Bruce Thompson


Milwaukee Board of School Directors

Milwaukee, Wis.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week as Letters