Having been an active participant
in the court-ordered busing to integrate Milwaukee’s public schools, I
would be the first to admit that 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 tried to eliminate the “separate and unequal” schools for blacks and whites—which had been outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954— it was whites who fought it.
White parents in Boston, Louisville, Ky., 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 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 the 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.
It wasn’t the elimination of racism, but the continuation of it, that motivated the school administration to suddenly begin upgrading black neighborhood schools once white students started attending them. The education bureaucracy may have creakily changed over the years, but it hasn’t eliminated all the vestiges of racism that will prevent a major shift in resources to all-black schools in black neighborhoods.
School Board director Michael Bonds believes that MPS (88% students of color) can drastically reduce busing now that transportation can do little to improve integration. He wants to spend the millions of dollars saved on transportation to improve neighborhood schools, which could further reduce busing, and on and on. Bonds’ proposal, passed unanimously by the School Board, directs the administration to draw up a plan to cut $20 million from busing for 2009-10 and put it 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. School director Terry Falk says it 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 funds in any one district, even to maintain the very best citywide schools. Politically, members prefer that all schools receive the same mediocre funding, rather than 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 right wing has promoted the word “choice” as a more positive-sounding euphemism for tax-paid vouchers to attend private and religious schools. The well-heeled promotional campaign has been so successful that one of the most controversial things anyone can suggest in education today is to deny parents’ choice.
Obviously, if every school in every neighborhood was a high-quality school that parents wanted their children to attend, we wouldn’t need busing at all. 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 provide a high-quality school for every child.
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