Some public school advocates are sounding alarms over several issues in Governor Walker's proposed biennial budget. They point to essentially unchanged state aid and a call for expanding the state's voucher program as new challenges to Wisconsin's public school systems. Some also say that the effort to reward higher-performing schools would come at the expensive of schools already facing a steep climb, in districts such as Milwaukee Public Schools.
But the author of a new book points that challenges to MPS are nothing new. Barbara Miner's book is called Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.
Miner says the Milwaukee school system has been watched for years by educators and school officials across the country in regards to private schools, school selection, and welfare, as Milwaukee has the oldest and largest private school voucher program in the nation. And Miner says the city's schools will be watched even more closely if Governor Walker’s policies are passed in 2016 - which is why she says we need to look at the school system's past.
Stain of segregation
Miner says back in the 50s and 60s, Milwaukee's public schools “had a stain of segregation" to them.
In 1957, Milwaukee was at its peak - Hank Aaron and the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series and the economy was strong with post-World War II manufacturing businesses. This success spawned a late migration of African Americans from the south to the city. At the time, the city's small black population was essentially forced to live in the "Inner Core," regardless of occupation or economic status. Schools for African American children were located only within this core area.
But by 1960 the city's African American population began to increase dramatically, and schools didn't have enough room to house all the children. The problem of segregation was also becoming more prevalent.
So leaders of the African American community pulled together for a boycott of the city's public schools. The one-day boycott involved 15,000 children, who instead wen to so-called "Freedom Schools" in churches. Miner says civil rights leaders in Milwaukee found a strong support base among the city's religious leaders - including Father Groppi, whose first protest was against the practice of so-called "intact bussing."
"Intact bussing" was a system in which African American children were bused to schools attended by white children while their schools were being renovated.
The African American children would arrive after the white children were in class. The two groups of students attended different classes and for lunch, the African American students were bused back to their old schools to make sure there was no interaction between the two groups. This practice went well into the 1970s, lasting over a decade.
Ending segregation in Milwaukee
Although the Freedom Schools boycott did not end segregation immediately, Miner says it did start the push for action.
In January of 1976, the federal courts declared Milwaukee Public Schools “unconstitutionally segregated.” The school was ordered to desegregate by September of that year. Miner says it was a rather large demand for a school system, but it had to get done.
"Just as Milwaukee was trying to desegregate its schools, which was clearly the most complicated transformation ever of the city’s public education, that’s when the deindustrialization hit and the city’s economy fell apart," Miner says.
Miner says deindustrialization hurt everybody; families and businesses, schools and neighborhoods all took a hit. But she says deindustrialization affected Milwaukee's African Americans the most because they had had less time to establish themselves in the community, in order to bear the brunt of these economic hardships.
Comparing Milwaukee’s deindustrialization to Chicago’s deindustrialization, Miner says Chicago’s African American population arrived much earlier there and as a result had a well-established African American middle class.
Today, segregation can still be seen, including in the city's schools. Miner says the Milwaukee region isn't poor, but there are pockets of more prevalent poverty. And with growing disparity among the Milwaukee neighborhoods, she sees growing disparities in the city's schools.