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Doubts Raised in 1984 that Milwaukee's Voluntary Programs Would Desegregate Schools


On this 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we review comments made 30 years ago, that Milwaukee's school desegregation efforts were falling short.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional, so districts had to integrate students. Milwaukee chose to let families volunteer to send their children to schools outside the neighborhood.

To lure students, Milwaukee Public Schools created specialty or magnet schools, and the state approved the Chapter 220 program which allowed students to transfer across district lines.

In 1984, 30 years post the Supreme Court ruling, a state audit indicated that the efforts here to integrate schools were sputtering. Dale Cattanach was state auditor at the time and oversaw the study. He told a legislative committee that the impact of desegregation had not fallen equally on all races.

"More specifically, the impact of bussing, the impact in terms of the closing of certain schools, (of) students who are permitted to attend neighborhood schools as opposed to those who must be bussed, has fallen more on black students and on black families than it has on white students and white families," Cattanach told the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee, at a hearing it was conducting on his findings.

Milwaukee’s Assistant Superintendent in 1984 was Bob Long. He defended the district’s decision to close nearly 50 neighborhood schools and convert 19 of them to specialty schools.

"To attract additional white students to move into citywide schools, we wanted to place those citywide schools geographically in black attendance areas or surrounding areas so that we forced white movement into some parts of the city, and of course, we did that," Long testified.

At the time, in 1984, MPS was 51 percent black and 37 percent white – with steadily declining white enrollment.

Dennis Conta predicted at the meeting, that not many white suburban students would enroll in the city’s specialty schools and MPS would gradually become a segregated system for poor children. When Conta testified, he was serving on a governor’s task force on school finance. He said it appeared only solution to segregation was mandatory integration.

"Either you permit the present program to continue, under its voluntary basis, without any mandatory provisions and guarantee yourself massive amounts of segregation or, in one form or the other, either through a court order or through some gradual mandatory provisions, you require the transfer of students. Unless that is done, Chapter 220 is going to be a program that is reserved for a very small number of white children and racial minorities and its very large promise, which was the purpose of the legislation in 1975, is not going to be realized," Conta told those attending the 1984 hearing.

One parent testified at that state hearing 30 years ago – Larry Harwell, a black dad in Milwaukee.

"All we're talking about in this room, is what white folk don't want to be around black folk. Everything else is covering up what we're really saying. No matter what else we do, if whites don't want to be around blacks, then no matter how we move people around, whites are going to find a way to put their kids in public schools or flee to another area, or leave the doggone city," Harwell said.

Harwell urged state lawmakers to focus on improving schools and not moving around students. Within the past decade or so, MPS has changed course and begun focusing on neighborhood schools.

Today, 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unequal, Milwaukee's district is primarily black and predominantly poor.