Published in the Sunday May 13, 2018 Crossroads opinion section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the open housing marches in Milwaukee, it is worth remembering that Father James Groppi understood the inherent link between housing and school segregation. In fact, Father’s Groppi’s first arrest was in 1965 during civil disobedience against Milwaukee Public School (MPS) policies promoting segregation.
Martin Luther King Jr., in a 1964 visit to Milwaukee, also spoke to the two sides of the city’s segregation. While he agreed that residential segregation should not be used “as an excuse” for segregated schools, he also noted that “honesty impels me to admit that the school problem cannot be solved permanently until the housing problem is solved.”
This is not to say that black kids must sit near white kids in order to learn. Asking blacks to assimilate into white culture and power structures is itself a form of racism. At the same time, it bears repeating that segregation — whether Jim Crow policies or contemporary reincarnations —is a foundational pillar of white supremacy, making it easier both to control and to neglect communities of color. (Control, Wisconsin style, also means locking up African-American men at a higher rate than any other state in the country.) During the school desegregation struggles of the 1970s, activists advocated metropolitan-area solutions, including redistricting that combined city and suburban schools. They knew that Wisconsin had a long history of modifying districts. In the 1930s, for instance, Wisconsin had 7,777 school districts. Today there are 424.
One modest proposal called for merging a few Milwaukee schools with Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. You can imagine the outcry. At a public meeting, state Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican, received thunderous applause when he attacked the plan for “using children as pawns for some social technician’s wild-eyed scheme.”
By Barbara Miner
Budget cuts in the Milwaukee Public Schools have become a rite of spring, seemingly as inevitable as the dandelions in our lawns.
But the cuts have nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with political decisions that have perpetuated the system of separate and unequal schools in the Milwaukee region.
Like so much else, the fundamental sticking point — it pokes us in the eye even as we try to ignore it — centers on race.
Today, Milwaukee is one of the most hypersegregated metropolitan areas in the country. At the same time, the gap between black and white academic achievement in Wisconsin is among the worst in the country, numbers driven by Milwaukee. And we act surprised.
Nor have housing policies significantly improved in the last half-century. The big difference is that segregation today is regional, maintained by suburban zoning regulations, lack of public transportation, policing policies and deep-seated prejudices.
The most prominent example erupted in New Berlin in 2010. A proposal for an apartment complex included “workforce housing” priced for people earning $35,000 a year or less.
Opponents feared that “undesirable elements” would move in from Milwaukee. Mayor Jack Chiovatero, who supported the complex and complained about bigoted and prejudiced opposition, received threatening phone calls. A sign that read “Nigger Lover” was put in his yard and talk erupted of a recall. When he ran for re-election in 2013, he lost.
Power shifts to the state
While today’s school controversies in MPS often seem a rehashing of decades- old struggles, there have been important changes. Perhaps most significant, Milwaukee is no longer the center of economic and political power in Wisconsin. Today, the state Legislature is calling the shots on education.
It’s impossible to ignore the racial politics: A legislative body controlled by conservative white men is dictating policies for a school district populated primarily by low-income students of color. If that smacks of colonialism, well, there’s a reason.
In recent decades, state policies have exacerbated education inequality in the Milwaukee region. There are so many examples it’s hard to keep track.
In 2015, for instance, the state phased out the metropolitan desegregation program known as Chapter 220, which promoted the enrollment of blacks and other non-whites in suburban schools. Today, the emphasis is on “open enrollment,” a nominally colorblind policy that has facilitated the “white flight” of Milwaukee students to suburban schools.
It was also the state legislature that began the voucher program providing public tax dollars to private schools. Since 1990, more than $2 billion in public money has been funneled to the Milwaukee voucher schools, money that could have been used to strengthen and improve MPS.
Not to be forgotten — revenue limits set in 1993 that cap how much a district can bring in, not including so-called categorical aid for students with disabilities, in poverty, or English language learners. Looked at philosophically, the revenue limit summarizes how much the state values a child. Not surprisingly, children in overwhelmingly white suburbs tend to have a higher value.
For instance, the revenue limit for a child in Shorewood is $11,623 in fiscal 2018. If you’re born a few blocks away, in Milwaukee, the figure is $10,122.
One more example. (Yes, school funding is mind-numbing and complicated. But it’s important.) Milwaukee has a disproportionately high percentage of students with special educational needs, almost 19%. When the federal government first passed protections for special-ed students in the 1970s, it promised to pick up 40% of the costs. That has never happened.
The state also promised to defray costs. Not only has state aid never reached the levels needed, but the percentage reimbursement has steadily decreased over the years.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau reported this January on the shortfalls in state and federal reimbursement for special ed in 2015-16, the most recent year with audited data. The shortfalls left MPS responsible for $139 million in additional funds — dwarfing the $38.7 million MPS budget gap this year.
If Father Groppi were alive today, I have little doubt he would take the fight to the state Legislature. He certainly didn’t hesitate to march into what was perceived as foreign territory in 1967, when open housing marchers crossed to the south side and were greeted by thousands of whites who jeered and threw bottles, stones and chunks of wood.
It’s important to commemorate the open housing struggles of 50 years ago. But a reinvigorated mass movement against segregated housing and schools might be a more fitting tribute.
— Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee journalist, and author of “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.”
Photography Website: www.barbarajminer.com