Report: Metro Milwaukee's Black Students Are The Most Hypersegregated In The Nation

Aug 13, 2020

Updated at 10:22 a.m. CT

New research on Black-white disparities in metropolitan Milwaukee draws a sobering conclusion about education: Black students here attend the most racially segregated schools in the nation.

Not only that, but schools have resegregated over the years. Black children are as racially isolated as they were in 1965.

Some Milwaukee education leaders say, with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, now is the time to change the segregation picture.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emeritus Marc Levine is the author of the report "The State Of Black Milwaukee." It outlines devastating inequalities between Black and white people in metropolitan Milwaukee, which includes four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington.

>>Black Milwaukeeans Are Generally Worse Off Today Than 50 Years Ago, UWM Study Finds

“The bottom line is racial inequality in Milwaukee is as bad as it’s ever been,” Levine said. “Levels of racial isolation and economic isolation in schools is as great as it’s ever been.”

Levine’s report shows 72% of Black students in metro Milwaukee attend hypersegregated schools, where students of color make up 90% or more of the enrollment.

He found that Milwaukee ranks the worst for hypersegregation out of the nation’s largest 50 metro areas. New York is next, with 66% of Black children in hypersegregated schools.

“I think there’s a number of reasons school segregation is quite important,” Levine said. “We’ve long recognized since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 how central school segregation is to overall segregation and overall levels of racial inequality.”

In 1976, a federal judge ordered Milwaukee Public Schools to desegregate. MPS created magnet schools to draw diverse students together and participated in a cross-district voluntary integration program called Chapter 220, which bused Black students to predominately white suburban schools, and vice versa.

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

Levine says these solutions were far from perfect.

“[There has been] lots of criticism of the excessive burdens that were placed on African American students — the efforts to bend over backwards to accommodate white students,” Levine said. “Lots of very important points have made about that.”

Levine says at first, the integration efforts in the 1970s and 1980s did make a difference. Milwaukee’s school segregation rate plummeted.

“When I looked at the data I was astounded to see that Milwaukee had gone from a place in the late 1960s of having among the most segregated school systems in the country — with 72% of African American students attending hyper-segregated schools — had gone by 1987 to having only 21% of African American students attending hyper-segregated schools,” Levine said.

But the integration didn’t last. From the 1990s to today, a combination of factors drove segregation back up to the 1960s era levels. The factors include white flight, the end of the Chapter 220 busing program, and the rise of education options that did not have integration goals, including open enrollment and private school vouchers.

Levine is working on a forthcoming study that will delve into how those education options drove school resegregation.

A graph from Levine's study shows the resegregation of Black students skyrocketed in the 1990s.
Credit Marc Levine / UWM Center for Economic Development

On top of that, much fewer Black people have moved to Milwaukee area suburbs, compared to other metro areas. That contributes to suburban schools remaining mostly white.

Levine says segregated schools are one factor that makes the Milwaukee metro one of the most racially unequal places in the country.

"We argue [Milwaukee] represents the archetype of modern-day metropolitan racial apartheid and inequality," Levine writes in the report. "On virtually all key measures of Black community well-being, Milwaukee ranks at or near the bottom when ranked against other large metropolitan areas."

Milwaukee Public School Board members Sequanna Taylor and Bob Peterson want to do something about Milwaukee's intense school segregation. Earlier this summer, they wrote a resolution calling for Milwaukee and the suburbs to work together on a regional plan for school desegregation.

“The purpose of this resolution is to really raise the ante,” Peterson said at the school board meeting where the resolution was introduced. “To publicly push school districts, municipalities, county boards to address how they’re going to help end Jim Crow in metro Milwaukee – the systematic, institutional racism that has been part of this region’s history.”

Taylor says the surge of protests against racial injustice present an opportunity to call the question on school segregation.

“People that wear Black Lives Matter shirts, it’s more than just wearing the shirts, it’s your actions that tells and shows us you believe in equity,” Taylor said. “So this is basically placing it on the forefront and making sure there are actionable ideas and goals coming forward, not just words.”

The MPS Board passed Peterson and Taylor’s school segregation resolution in June. So far, it’s unclear what will come of it. Peterson says the district will send surveys to suburban school boards, gauging interest and searching for ideas to promote integration.

MPS also plans to apply for a national school integration program with the Century Foundation's Bridges Collaborative, according to Peterson. The two-year program aims to help school districts, charter schools and housing organizations "increase access to diverse, integrated, and inclusive schools and neighborhoods, as well as improving the quality of these schools and neighborhoods for children."

In an upcoming story, we’ll explore some possible strategies, and the barriers that exist to desegregate schools.

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