Governor Seeks Scrutiny of Milwaukee Busing Plan

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A widely acclaimed, state-funded voluntary-busing program involving Milwaukee and its suburbs is coming under increasing scrutiny by Wisconsin policymakers and could face termination within a few years.

The program, which cost $45 million this year and has spent more than $400 million since its creation in 1976, currently transports some 6,700 students for desegregation.

In his budget for the next two years, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has proposed cutting off state funding for the Chapter 220 busing program in July 1995 unless the legislature votes to renew it.

Aides to the Governor say the goal of the provision in the budget, which last week was before the legislature's joint finance committee, is not necessarily to kill the program, but rather to insure that it comes under review by the legislature.

"The Governor thinks it is very important that the program is debated and that the educational merits and costs of the program are reviewed,'' said Stephanie L. Smith, Mr. Thompson's press secretary.

Nevertheless, the proposal has triggered resistance and threats of a school-desegregation suit from supporters of the program, which this year bused about 5,850 minority Milwaukee students into suburban schools and about 870 white suburban students into the city.

"We do not want the program to end. It is a very positive voluntary-desegregation program,'' said Gail Grant, a Milwaukee parent who has been organizing opposition to the Governor's proposal.

In addition, the overcrowded Milwaukee school system does not have the capacity to serve the students who would be returned to its schools if the Chapter 220 program ends, warned Thomas J. Phillips, a spokesman for the Compact for Educational Opportunity, which oversees the interdistrict-busing program.

Avoiding Court Action

The Chapter 220 program was created by the Wisconsin legislature in 1976, at a time when Milwaukee was under federal court orders to desegregate and suburban districts feared being pulled into the case.

In its first year, Chapter 220 served just 323 students in Milwaukee and nine suburban districts. The program received a significant boost from a 1987 settlement agreement between Milwaukee, its suburbs, and the state, under which Governor Thompson pledged to provide an additional $30 million to the program over five years.

Currently, Chapter 220 involves Milwaukee and 23 suburban districts. Along with the interdistrict-busing program, it also funds voluntary intradistrict desegregation, spending an additional $25 million in state funds this year to transport about 10,000 children to other schools within their own school systems.

Governor Thompson has proposed spending $75 million on the program next year and $80 million in 1995. After that, however, he would allow the program to expire unless the legislature voted to renew it.

Program Mission Disputed

Much of the debate over Chapter 220 has been clouded by disagreements over the program's basic mission.

One perspective on the program was expressed recently by Charles J. Sykes, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. Writing in the current issue of Wisconsin Interest, a journal published by the institute, Mr. Sykes called the Chapter 220 program "the product of political and legal compromises, not educational policy.''

Since 1977, Wisconsin taxpayers have spent about $406 million on Chapter 220 without ever seeing a comprehensive analysis of the academic achievement of participating students, Mr. Sykes said. The main purpose of the program, he suggested, is "the shift of tax dollars from state taxpayers to Milwaukee-area school districts.''

The program is wasteful, inefficient, and unaccountable and should be abolished in two years so its state aid could be reallocated for "far more pressing educational needs,'' he argued.

But Mr. Phillips of the Compact, a consortium of 24 metropolitan districts and the Milwaukee chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, contended that "this program was created to promote racial balance and cultural integration, and nothing else.''

Although the program does have some educational benefits, such as the promotion of multicultural education, these benefits are secondary, Mr. Phillips said.

The real issue, he said, is whether Chapter 220 is preferable to its likely alternative: court-ordered desegregation programs that would deprive local school boards and superintendents of control over their own schools.

"Chapter 220 is funded with state tax dollars that are earmarked for education,'' Ms. Smith retorted. "Any time state education dollars are used to fund a program, we should know what the educational merits of the program are.''

Vol. 12, Issue 33

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