Because of concern for resegregation of Milwaukee’s public schools, this week I attended a meeting of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors on behalf of ACLU. Over the years I have been to many such meetings when the MPS Board has considered matters that affect the opportunity for an integrated education. This week’s consideration of cutting or limiting bussing to the schools that were established in the late 1970’s and early 80’s to encourage voluntary integration was both encouraging and at the same time sobering. The outpouring of support for integrated education was poignant and heart felt. Parents, teachers, principals, and students testified about the diversity and inclusiveness that they fear they would lose if the district decided not to continue providing transportation to MPS specialty schools. They testified about how the future of the French, German, Spanish and Italian immersion schools and the languages high school hangs in the balance. Restricting support for children whose parents could not afford or provide transportation would lead to declined enrollment. Decline in enrollment will reduce funds that support these highly successful schools. Schools that attract students from Milwaukee’s suburbs as far away as West Bend would be weakened.
When I got my chance to speak I urged the board to obtain an analysis of the impact of any proposals to change the availability of transportation on the opportunity to obtain an integrated education. I noted that while others who spoke generally did not use the term “integrated”. I urged the board to look not just at desegregation but at the more positive goal of integration. Like many others I spoke about how my sons’ experience at Golda Meier, MacDowell Montessori, and Roosevelt Middle School for the Arts greatly enriched their lives. I reminded the Board that the equal educational opportunity is not just good policy, it is a legal right guaranteed by the US and Wisconsin Constitutions.
What was sobering to me, though, was that proposals that would reduce integrated educational opportunities were being considered. Many of the speakers referred to the history of efforts to desegregate Milwaukee Public Schools and the significant role that the provision of transportation (bussing) played and still plays in the effort. In the 1970’s and 1980’s opposition to bussing was often motivated by racial animus and opposition to desegregation. That does not appear to be the motivation for the current proposals. They are proposed as ways to reduce spending and help close a significant gap in funding. The fiscal challenges of MPS, however, are in part a result of inadequate state funding for MPS, the school district that is responsible for educating the bulk of the State’s African American, Hispanic and other children of color, and its students for which English is a second language. Speakers at the school board meeting urged that other ways be explored to close the funding gap. A proposal to fill the gap by lowering the proposal for raising teachers’ salaries was not well received by those who testified. Many pointed out that reducing teacher pay pits teachers against students and the families who want to keep integrated educational opportunities available. Others expressed concern that taxpayer funding of voucher schools was contributing to the funding gap and the need to consider reducing transportation to integrated schools.
The battle for integrated schools is decades old, but it is a battle that must still be fought. It was heartening to see that the struggle to end racial isolation with all its adverse consequences is still underway.
By Bill Lynch
Bill Lynch was the Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin when the Federal Court in Milwaukee ordered MPS to desegregate its schools in 1976. He represented community groups that unsuccessfully challenged the settlement of that case because it did not promise to eliminate all black schools. He also represented the NAACP in the metropolitan school desegregation case. He has been a member of the ACLU of Wisconsin Board of Directors since 1979.