Milwaukee's School Integration Program Slated For Budget Ax

May 18, 2015

On Tuesday, the legislature’s budget committee will vote on funding for K-12 schools. One item Gov. Walker has included is a phase-out of Chapter 220. He says participation is minimal.

Wisconsin created the program to integrate public schools in Milwaukee, after a federal judge declared them segregated in 1976.  The state hailed Chapter 220 as a voluntary way to desegregate Milwaukee’s public schools. It paid for black and white students to attend schools farther away from home, in order to make them more racially balanced.

Yet, in reality, Chapter 220 mainly bused black students to schools that were primarily white, according to Barbara Miner. She wrote a book about the history of public education in Milwaukee.

“African-Americans accounted for 90 percent of people bused because a decision had been made that in order to placate whites opposed to desegregation, there would be no mandatory busing of white students,” Miner says.

Miner says for the most part, Chapter 220 accomplished its purpose of better integrating Milwaukee Public Schools and districts bordering the city.

Then, in 1984, several community activists filed a lawsuit against the state and two dozen outlying suburbs. The suit took a larger view of schools in the metropolitan area and insisted they were segregated. One plaintiff was Joyce Mallory, a member of the Milwaukee School Board at the time.

“My interest in it and reason why the Milwaukee Public Schools sued the suburban districts was because they were limiting the number of seats they made available to students,” Mallory says.

The lawsuit dragged on for three years. Finally, in 1987, a federal court helped broker a settlement. Chapter 220 would remain voluntary, but the state would pay to bus students to and from 23 participating suburbs.

The program grew into the early 1990s with 6,000 Milwaukee students bused to suburban schools and about 1,000 suburban children transferring to MPS. Since its peak, participation has dropped to just a quarter of those numbers. Mallory thinks there are a couple reasons for the decline.

“The high cost of busing and other options that parents have now. I think parents have other options through charter schools and also through choice. They can go to religious schools and those were not choices previously available to them,” Mallory says.

One superintendent who does not want Chapter 220 to end is Demond Means. He oversees the Mequon-Thiensville schools.

“It promotes integration in one of the most segregated cities in the United States and I’m baffled that we would close off an opportunity to children of the city of Milwaukee,” Means says.

Only a handful of the original 23 suburbs still participate and accept new students into Chapter 220. One district that stopped is Elmbrook in Waukesha County. Spokesman Chris Thompson says, at first, the state paid districts per pupil to educate Chapter 220 students. But since 1993, it has only provided property tax relief.

“As our district has gone through a number of budget cuts due to declining enrollment, the addition of students without additional revenue was not something our school board felt we could assume for the long term,” Thompson says.

Another factor may be Wisconsin’s open enrollment program. It started in 1993 and allows students to attend schools in other districts – if they have room. The state pays per pupil but does not provide transportation, and there is no racial component.

On Tuesday, we'll talk to participants in Chapter 220.