Janesville35.8°

Ending Milwaukee school busing won’t drive widespread upgrades

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Joel McNally
April 28, 2008

Having been an active participant in the court-ordered busing to integrate Milwaukee public schools, I would be the first to admit it didn’t turn out to magically create quality public schools for every child. Neither will ending busing.


The irony is that a new effort to drastically reduce busing in the Milwaukee Public Schools is coming from leaders within the African-American community. In the ’70s, when federal courts finally got around to really doing something to eliminate the “separate and unequal” schools for blacks and whites that had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956, it was whites who fought it.


White parents in Boston, Louisville and other cities, their faces twisted in racial hatred, rioted against busing. It was the history of white racial violence against school integration that was responsible for the worst racial inequities in what Milwaukee called its “voluntary” desegregation plan.


What Milwaukee’s white leaders meant by voluntary was that busing would be voluntary for white families. Thousands of black children were involuntarily bused to distant white schools. Neighborhood schools they left behind were given additional resources to transform them into “specialty” schools to attract white students voluntarily.


The city’s continuing unequal treatment of students, even in the name of integration, is well known. It is an understandable source of resentment among blacks today.


But as part of that first group of white parents who willingly volunteered to have our children bused to formerly all-black neighborhood schools, I want more people to remember how integration improved Milwaukee schools.


The truth is that when white parents arrived at formerly all-black schools, they were shocked at just how separate and unequal those schools had been. Often, there was little or no library. Some schools had no science labs. Poor teachers with archaic teaching methods had been dumped there. At one school, the children had no playground because teachers were using it as a parking lot.


White parents screamed bloody murder. The administration, which previously had ignored complaints from black parents, suddenly became responsive to the concerns of parents. Some of the best schools in the system today—Golda Meir Elementary School, MacDowell Montessori, Rufus King High School, Milwaukee High School of the Arts and others—were created as a result of busing, for all its racial inequities.


School Board director Michael Bonds believes MPS, now 88 percent students of color, can drastically reduce busing now that transportation can do little to improve integration. Bonds’ proposal, passed unanimously by the school doard, directs the administration to draw up a plan to cut $20 million from busing for 2009-10 and put the money into art, music and other academic improvements.


The sad truth, however, is that in an MPS budget of $1.3 billion a year, $20 million doesn’t buy you much academic improvement. That only amounts to one additional teacher for every school.


Those who envision all $20 million going to reopen schools in the black community and to improve central city schools that desperately need it don’t understand how the school board works. Board members, elected by district, are reluctant to spend additional money in any one district, even to maintain the very best citywide schools. Politically, members prefer all schools receiving the same mediocre funding, rather than to allow some schools to excel at a higher cost.


Bonds is right. Busing is no longer needed for integration. What busing is used for now is to allow students to attend schools of their choice within the district. It’s actually a lot harder to eliminate busing for choice. The most controversial thing anyone can suggest in education today is that you’re going to deny parents’ choice.


Obviously, if every school in every neighborhood were a high-quality school that parents wanted their children to attend, we wouldn’t need any busing. But that has to come first before busing can end.


So squeeze every dollar you can out of transportation and put it into improving our schools. Then, get busy finding hundreds of millions of dollars more to put with it to provide a high-quality school for every child.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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