'Education Is Not Just for the Privileged Few'

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Every day in Milwaukee, 1,600 yellow school buses shuttle children from their neighborhoods to distant schools. One thousand six hundred buses. Daily. Busing students from one school to another does not help them learn. vouchers do. That, quite simply, is why I keep fighting for less busing and more vouchers.

Sixty-seven thousand Milwaukee students ride buses, but academic achievement is no better than it was when students were taught in neighborhood schools. Busing fooled parents. They were led to believe that if they put their child on a bus, that child would be better educated. It was a big lie.

It is malicious and cruel to put the burden of school desegregation on young children, as young as kindergarten, leaving them literally standing out in the cold. The first child picked up at 5:30 in the morning is the last child home after school, getting home at 7 at night. These black children will be tired, not alert, in the classroom. For adults to put this kind of burden on children is child abuse. Adults are forcing children to do something they themselves would not do.

On top of that, the receiving communities do not want the black students there. Our children suffer all types of humiliation in those schools. They are treated as if they had leprosy. In what are supposed to be integrated schools, black children stick together. If churches at 9 on Sunday mornings are the most segregated places in adult America, surely playgrounds are the most segregated places for our children.

Black students in predominantly black schools are assigned inexperienced teachers or teachers sent to those schools as a last resort. But black students in white schools have teachers who do not like them. Either way, the black students are at a disadvantage.

The reason for busing was economic. It was not that the school districts cared about the education of black children. If they cared, they would not have tolerated conditions that were not in the best interests of the students. They could have done something sooner.

The greatest beneficiaries of court-ordered desegregation were white people. The bus company, which was owned by white people, made millions of dollars. Because black students were bused elsewhere, many schools in black communities were closed, putting a lot of black people out of work.

Schools in white communities, where enrollment had been falling, should have been closed or merged. Instead, they bused in hundreds of black children to fill the vacant seats.

The only integration I support is economic integration. Let's make sure that every company is racially balanced. That would solve some of our problems and make a lot of social programs unnecessary.

I have seen plenty of support for ongoing court-ordered desegregation. Desegregation is doing a whole lot of adults good. They have jobs tied to it. Milwaukee gets $42 million a year from the state for desegregation, and 23 suburban districts get $50 million.

That is $92 million, from what began at $8 million in 1976. We have never had a hearing for the public to scrutinize the busing plans. But busing is funded every year, just for moving bodies around. The program has never been evaluated; the school districts do not have to prove anything. In short, no one has yet proved that busing improves the educational opportunities for any child.

But it's a big business. If we no longer require busing, many businesses and districts would not receive the $92 million it costs annually to bus these students. It is all about money, and everybody knows it. Suburban districts hide behind the court order to justify ripping off the taxpayers.

The Wisconsin legislature just voted down a bill that would have allowed students to choose any public school in the state. Ironically, suburban parents, those who already exercise their economic ability to choose, fought the proposal like mad. With public school choice, schools' standards would rise as they compete for the best students. We would not need to bus students to suburban schools because urban schools would improve. So suburban schools would not get their $50 million.

My goal is not only for Milwaukee to no longer suffer under court-ordered desegregation but also to show the many reasons why courts cannot make that decision for any district. People finally see that the day-to-day implementation of desegregation was the worst thing for our children. It has taken 20 years to realize that.

People who want to keep the program tell me that the children need to interact with children of all backgrounds. I say, "Fine. Bring your child to my neighborhood." They tell me that some students are doing very well in the desegregation program. That is true, but those students would most likely do well anywhere. And a quality education system must be good for all students, not just for some of them.

The best educational program for children is the voucher program. We passed a law in Wisconsin to let low-income families do what parents with money already do: find the school that best meets the needs of their child. We take a position that education is not just for the privileged few.

I do not want vouchers available to everyone. Those with power and resources can already afford a quality education. The playing field would still be unequal, only $3,600 more expensive. It would still be an unfair race. I believe vouchers should be offered only to low-income families.

Vouchers for low-income parents would make the playing field of education more level. Many of our best schools are nonpublic, but a family has to have money for the tuition. With a voucher for $3,600, roughly half of what it costs to provide a public education to one student, a family has a chance for an equal education.

Additionally, a private school voucher helps a low-income parent buy not only a better education but also respect. "Come in, Ms. Brown. Here's some coffee. Here's a comfortable chair." Why are they rolling out the red carpet for Ms. Brown? They want the $3,600. It's simple: They have a product, and they want to sell it.

The parent feels respected and important. The child sees the parent in a powerful situation. It makes the child and the parent feel better. The school benefits, too, because the parent wants to be there; an involved parent makes teachers' and the students' tasks easier. And, of course, if the parent is not happy with the school, the child can leave.

In public schools, the emphasis is on maintaining the bureaucracy. With vouchers, the emphasis is on the child's education. While busing keeps schools occupied with working toward integration, vouchers keep schools busy with the true work of schools: providing a sound education for every student, no matter what color.

I keep hearing that the public schools are crowded and that nobody cares about learning. With private school vouchers, we are going to take some of those "don't care" students off the hands of public schools.

People in public school complain to me: "You're asking for our best poor. You'll be taking our most motivated parents." I answer, "When you had these motivated parents, how did you treat them?" They never say they have good students and parents until we say we are taking them away with vouchers.

All parents I know want their children to succeed. When their child is successful, they feel successful as parents.

Vol. 15, Issue 20, Pages 41-42

Published in Print: February 7, 1996, as 'Education Is Not Just for the Privileged Few'
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