Peterkin Drops Milwaukee’s ‘Controlled Choice’ Plan

By Peter Schmidt — June 13, 1990 3 min read

Bowing to widespread opposition from parents, Milwaukee’s superintendent of schools has withdrawn his support for a “controlled choice” student-assignment plan that would have reduced access to the district’s widely studied magnet schools.

“The community was just unable to buy into the concept” Robert S. Peterkin said of his decision late last month to abandon the proposal drafted by outside consultants. The plan closely resembled similar systems implemented in Boston and Seattle in the current school year and reflected ideas Mr. Peterkin helped pioneer when he was schools chief in Cambridge, Mass.

The superintendent said he would submit a proposal to the school board later this month that would focus on school improvement rather than changes in the student-assignment policy.

The latter issue, he said, will be the focus of a special advisory panel to be convened in the fall. The panel will be charged with preparing a new proposal on student assignments by the end of the coming school year.

Parents who had attended hearings on the consultants’ student-assignment plan “were extremely concerned” that the school-improvement aspect of the plan be made stronger, Mr. Peterkin said in an interview last week.

On the basis of that reaction, the superintendent rejected the consultants’ view that changes in the assignment process should precede and drive improvements in district schools.

The proposal, prepared by Charles V. Willie, a professor of education and urban studies at Harvard University, sought to address inequities and confusion caused by the district’s growing number of magnet and specialty schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1990.)

It recommended that traditional neighborhood-school assignments be eliminated and all students be required to choose from schools located in one of two large attendance zones. Access to the specialty schools in each zone would have been restricted to students from that zone.

The plan also had sought to reduce total busing costs, decrease the disproportionate burden of busing on black students, and create a mechanism for school-based improvements in schools that failed to attract racially balanced enrollments.

Access to Magnet Schools

Mr. Peterkin, who collaborated with Mr. Willie on the Cambridge controlled-choice program, said many parents had feared that the division of the district into two zones would deny their children access to certain magnet schools.

“Without the quality schools on both sides of the line,” he said, ''they felt they would be closed out of whatever they wanted.”

But Mr. Willie said in an interview last week that “student assignment and school improvement go hand in hand.” He described Mr. Peterkin’s decision to separate the two processes as “a fundamental error in the diagnosis for improvement of schools in Milwaukee.”

“If you pull away from the fairness agenda, you will have hell on your hands,” Mr. Willie warned Mr. Peterkin in a letter dated June 1.

The letter said that while Seattle had met with fierce resistance to its decision to go ahead with a controlled-choice plan, the debate there appears to have subsided in recent months with the staging of neighborhood and citywide summits on educational goals. (See Education Week, May 30, 1990.)

The Milwaukee superintendent said he would address the issue of student assignment by asking his advisory panel to consider recommendations that the district pair or cluster schools to enhance desegregation; establish new attendance zones to decrease the distances students are transported; and develop criteria for effective schools that would be used to judge whether schools need to be restructured.

Also on the panel’s agenda, he said, will be recommendations to define desegregation in broader terms, as a way of reducing high concentrations of low-income and low-ability students in certain schools, and to develop new policies for assigning siblings and kindergarten students.

In the short term, Mr. Peterkin said, he will ask the board to take immediate steps to revise current funding mechanisms and increase the amount of money available for school improvement.

He also will seek to revise the procedures by which parents choose their children’s schools and appeal school assignments they do not like.

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 1990 edition of Education Week as Peterkin Drops Milwaukee’s ‘Controlled Choice’ Plan