2015 UWM Research Report – February 2015
When he transferred to a suburban school district in 1989, Jelani Canser found more academic and artistic enrichment opportunities.
“It’s fair to say that the entire direction of my life changed,” he says of the move from Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to a suburban district just minutes from Milwaukee.
A teacher himself, Canser now worries about the outcomes for other minority students who don’t have involved parents like his.
“Again, I appreciate what the program did for me, but a better long-term solution would have been to keep the best and brightest in MPS and try to put more resources into the schools – easier said than done, I know.”
Three UW-Milwaukee School of Education faculty members looked at the thorny issues involved in the voluntary integration of schools to overcome achievement gaps and decrease segregation. Their case study, recently published in Education and Urban Society, looked at Milwaukee’s pioneering Chapter 220 voluntary integration program, established in 1975.
They found that the benefits of Chapter 220 are now being substantially eroded by legislative changes.
“Chapter 220 was set up by the state legislature to alleviate hyper-segregation,” says Michael Bonds, associate professor of education and lead author of the study. Bonds is also president of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors. Co-authors are Marie Sandy, assistant professor, and Raquel Farmer-Hinton, associate professor of education.
Chapter 220 allowed MPS’ predominately African American students to attend one of 23 suburban schools, most of which were predominately white. The program also allowed suburban students to enroll in MPS.
The goal was to promote cultural and racial integration in education on a voluntary basis without cost to taxpayers. In addition, national studies demonstrated that students in racially diverse schools do far better in terms of long-term achievement.
However, enrollment in Milwaukee’s 220 program has declined dramatically since its 1993-’94 enrollment peak of 5,918 students. By the 2012-’13 school year, enrollment plummeted to 1,456.
“Milwaukee had a model program, and we are looking at how that essentially became imperfect over time,” says Bonds. Legislative changes that appeared race-neutral on the surface have contributed to resegregating schools, he adds.
Bonds explains that Wisconsin’s statewide Open Enrollment program, established in 1998, is a key factor behind 220’s eroding enrollment. Open Enrollment allows parents to enroll their children in any public school district in Wisconsin.
Under Open Enrollment, there are no integration goals and no financial support for transportation. This disadvantages minority parents who often don’t have the time or money to drive students to outlying suburbs, and encourages white students to flee city schools for the suburbs, co-author Marie Sandy explains.
Differences in the way the two programs are financed also give suburban schools incentive to accept Open Enrollment rather than 220 students.
Bonds says he and his co-authors hope their study and ongoing follow-ups will provoke discussion about the role of voluntary integration programs nationally as well as the need to improve urban schools.
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