The History And Impact Of Wisconsin's Only School Integration Program

Feb 18, 2019

Sincere Tatum, 18, is one of a handful of black students at Brookfield Central High School. The school is 70 percent white, 4 percent black. 

“It took a while for me to adjust,” Tatum said. “Most of the time I’m the only African-American kid in my class.”

But Tatum tends to look for the upside in challenging situations.

“Like OK, there’s a cultural difference, but now I have the opportunity to educate my classmates if needed,” he says.

Tatum lives in Milwaukee. He goes to school in Brookfield through the decades-old Chapter 220 program — Wisconsin’s first foray into school choice. It’s a voluntary program that buses students across district lines to promote racial integration.

At its peak in the late '80s and early '90s, about 6,000 minority students and 1,000 white students participated. 

But the Wisconsin Legislature ended Chapter 220 four years ago, closing it to new participants. Students like Tatum, who were already part of it, are allowed to continue until graduation. That makes him one of the last 682 Milwaukee students in the Chapter 220 program.

School segregation is still prevalent in the Milwaukee metro area, despite the efforts of Chapter 220. That prompted Sophie Pappenheim to send a question to Beats Me.

“Regarding the Chapter 220 program, has it been positively impactful toward desegregation? What more should be done to desegregate schools?”

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Pappenheim was a student in Whitefish Bay in the late '90s. She remembers a group of students who were bused to and from school — the Chapter 220 kids.

“When I think about the issue of school segregation in Milwaukee, that’s one of the first things that comes to mind,” Pappenheim said. “Because it was something I was aware of growing up that was supposed to be helping to fix that. And yet I had no idea of how impactful it had been.”

Courts Pressure Schools To Desegregate

Lawmakers created Chapter 220 in 1975, right before a federal judge found that the Milwaukee school district was intentionally segregating schools.

Chapter 220 provided busing for black city students to attend suburban schools, and suburban students to attend city specialty schools, like Milwaukee High School of the Arts. Those specialty schools were created to draw white students to Milwaukee. The white population in Milwaukee Public Schools was quickly falling, from 60 percent in 1975 to 36 percent 10 years later.

“It wasn’t just by accident or happenstance that [African-American] students were concentrated in the city of Milwaukee,” said James Hall, an attorney and former Milwaukee NAACP president.

As Milwaukee became a majority-minority district, it found itself on the other side of a legal battle. In 1984, MPS sued 24 suburban districts over their resistance to integration. Hall represented MPS in the lawsuit.

James Hall (right) and Bill Lynch were lawyers involved in Milwaukee Public Schools' lawsuit against suburban school districts in 1984. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement that expanded the Chapter 220 program.
Credit Emily Files

“In each suburb, there had been actions by planning councils, by zoning boards, racially restrictive covenants saying African-Americans couldn’t live there, and other types of actions that kept African-Americans out,” Hall said.

One desegregation solution proposed was redistricting. That is, drawing new boundaries to pair suburbs with pieces of the city, creating new school districts. But the suburbs said no.

"That was very vigorously opposed by the people in the suburbs," said attorney Bill Lynch, who represented the NAACP at the time.

So, a compromise. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement that expanded the voluntary Chapter 220 program from 12 suburbs to 23, opening more seats for students of color to attend well-resourced schools in white neighborhoods.

Some Suburbs Become More Integrated

Tomika Vukovic was one of the early Chapter 220 students. She went to school in Shorewood.

“There was this kind of thought process that those schools were better for you,” Vukovic said. “That if we could get to the schools that were predominately white, my kid would have a better education.”

Now Vukovic lives in the suburbs herself. In fact, she is the first black school board member in Glendale-River Hills.

Glendale is a K-8 district that feeds into Nicolet High School. Out of the 23 suburban districts that were part of Chapter 220, 11 now have 30 percent or more nonwhite students. Glendale is one of them.

Tomika Vukovic attended Shorewood schools through the Chapter 220 program. Now, she is the only African-American on the Glendale-River Hills school board. Glendale is one of the more integrated suburban school districts.
Credit Emily Files

Vukovic has a mostly positive view of her education as a participant in Chapter 220. She says it didn’t make sense to her when she found out a few years ago the Wisconsin Legislature was ending the program.

“Why?” Vukovic asked. “This was helping kids of color.”

Downfall Of Chapter 220

By that time in 2015, Chapter 220 had been eclipsed by other school choice programs, none of which have racial integration goals. Milwaukee’s private school voucher program was growing in popularity. And then there’s Open Enrollment.

“Open Enrollment was really the dagger that undercut 220,” said attorney James Hall.  

Open Enrollment, created in 1998, allows students to transfer to districts where they don’t live. Unlike Chapter 220, it has no integration requirement. And it’s less accessible to poor families because it does not provide busing. Most students using Open Enrollment are white.

Though there were some vocal advocates for Chapter 220 throughout its run, black leaders in Milwaukee were not unanimous in their support. 

Howard Fuller was skeptical from the beginning. He’s a leading school choice advocate and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

“I just felt like the programs that were promoting integration were not going to make a significant difference for large numbers of black children,” Fuller said.

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He points out that Chapter 220 and the creation of magnet schools were chosen as integration tools because they were easiest for white people to accept.

“Even though, in theory, this was supposed to be about how do we make sure black children get a quality education, if you go back and look at it, there were significant compromises made right from the beginning to accommodate the interests of white people,” Fuller said.

Hall says Chapter 220 was a compromise. But he thinks, despite its limitations, it was worth keeping.  

“Really, when you boil it down to the essence, this was the only program in the state with the purpose of bringing together whites and students of color,” Hall said. 

Segregation Today

Research indicates that both black and white students benefit from integrated schools. 

The Chapter 220 program fostered some integration in certain suburban schools. But it didn’t change the racial balance in Milwaukee. Today, only 11 percent of MPS students are white.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s black students are more likely than not to attend schools – whether public or private — where the majority of students are the same race. Research shows Milwaukee city and metro area schools are just as segregated today as they were in the 1960s.

“Across the country, I think many places have lost hope in desegregation because the resistance to desegregation was so great,” said UW-Madison professor Walter Stern. Stern studies school segregation. “So you see much more emphasis on living with segregated schools and communities and trying to promote equity within those settings.”

"Across the country, I think many places have lost hope in desegregation because the resistance to desegregation was so great," said UW-Madison professor Walter Stern.

Sincere Tatum, the Chapter 220 student in Brookfield, has spent his entire K-12 career waking up before 6 a.m. to catch the bus to suburban schools. He says the program ending is "a sad thing."

“Because students tend to educate other students on how they’ve grown up, what their home life has been, what their culture is,” Tatum said. “And when most of your class is the exact same as you and there’s very little differentiation, you can become kind of ignorant.”

Tatum is graduating this year. He wants to go to college to become an athletic trainer.

Eventually, the 700 or so Chapter 220 kids still in school will graduate, and Wisconsin’s only cross-district integration program will be a thing of the past. School segregation, on the other hand, will not be.

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