Sunday, July 5, 2020


By Dominique Paul Noth

It’s being treated by some as a utopian dream from the Milwaukee Public Schools’ controlling board. It is a unanimous resolution that, if adopted by southeastern Wisconsin,  would refocus the anger and marches over  George Floyd’s murder. It is a bold  effort to harness outrage among black, brown and white to address not just the Floyd circumstances but the complicated  core of our hardened societal attitudes, not just the momentary passions against racism  but real change, the sort that films and books are being written about but no one is yet sure can happen. 

More than a resolution to discuss things, it is a summons to regional arms. For many observers it is a sign of maturity at the once squabbling board -- sidetracked by small fights and petty disputes in the past –to   finally embrace reality and look far beyond themselves to produce a lasting change not only in how public schools are funded but in what they are supposed to be teaching.

“It’s hardly pie in the sky,” agreed several community organizers I spoke to. One reflected how it was just this sort of community engagement that solved the teen pregnancy problem that most of the community thought was so ingrained in Milwaukee society that it would never go away.  But a united effort – indeed a United Way effort – turned it around.

The solution to hyper-segregation in K-12, the MPS board now realizes aloud, must be regional -- not just within its own public school system but by motivating a regional army.

If the world is listening – and that means the WOW counties, plus Racine and Kenosha -- the board is flatly stating that it is not the police, not the justice system, not the elected officials alone but the whole massive infrastructure that must change.  The Floyd marches have to look hard and deep over decades to the actions and attitudes that created a muddy heritage about racism, housing patterns, meaningful jobs, economic status and social equity.

Addressing the re-emergence of hyper-segregation within our public schools is key to any lasting change. It requires an opening of black, brown and white minds that have created their own underlying tensions toward each other.

This has to be a massive assault, metro-wide and growing, by activists, community organizers and regional leaders on the built-in attitudes that have affected our children for generations and keep us in separate boxes.

These are mighty entrenched boxes that require discussion and action.  It’s far more than better police behavior.  It will require an empathy and admission of overlooked morality by the larger society itself.
When the Floyd marches took to Menomonee Falls.

The Milwaukee marches for Floyd that flooded downtown have spread out in June and July to Brookfield, Cudahy, Menomonee Falls and South Milwaukee, and the leaders report this emphasis will continue in the all-important suburbs and feeder communities. The new social awareness the Floyd case has generated was clearly much on the mind of the MPS leaders. So they are expanding the wake-up call in a belief that now is the time for the community to listen.  Not just in spite of the pandemic but in a curious way because of it.

There are some 13,000 public school districts in the nation, all trying to figure out how in the fall they can reopen for some days of in-person schooling and/or other days of distance learning.   Unlike coronavirus pandemics of the past, which seemed to target the younger, this brand of covid-19 has only slowly been spreading younger and right now dominates in the older  people with underlying health problems. That could change, even as we develop newer treatments and contact tracing knowledge.

 Right now, parents may mainly be thinking about how to get the kids out from underfoot, but is there a better time to examine what sort of society they will be trained to take their place in?  What are the schools going to teach them about those old-fashioned terms like history, civics and social trends?

The growing awareness of social injustice may be the appropriate time to address a changing vision of society that many surprisingly young children are already aware of. In fact, many of those children will balk at anything less meaningful as they go back to school.

The coronavirus virus on the one hand makes infinitely more complicated the case of racial justice, but it also has crystallized for young and old the importance of moving ahead more openly to true diversity, free of old conflicts.  

The board is not alone in wanting to see expansion into lasting change for the festering racial heritage. 

With its regional integration push, MPS is making an extraordinary effort to solve the core of Milwaukee's segregated realities.  It is using the excellent research of UWM’s retired professional expert in this field, Marc Levine, whom I have quoted in previous stories (including one on the Sherman Park uproar four years ago that anticipated many of the issues in the Floyd marches).

The MPS has assembled information not just on hyper-segregation in the classroom but on the complicated realities that make Milwaukee simultaneously top the list of segregated cities and the list of diversity of races within a city,  as Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy explored in a recent column.  This is the sort of complexity that our society must tackle before it can pretend to see solutions.

What MPS hasn’t openly admitted, though I am editorializing about it  here,  is that solutions also require changing the GOP stranglehold on the state legislature.  This is a basic political reality because, right now, only one of two major parties is invested in listening --  the Democrats.  That is a tragedy because solutions benefit  the state as a whole.

For years of writing about MPS problems, I've described piecemeal efforts by the MPS itself and its allies  to address religious schools and the voucher largesse,  the gross failure to tell the public how many of the tax  dollars were going to support religious schools (one of my highest read stories),  the slow steady stealing of state taxpayer money away from public education, the efforts by Milwaukee officials to slow the growth of religious schools in taking tax money, only to be undone by the state  legislature’s canny efforts to put on more screws.

What has made the problem doubly difficult, I wrote, is that the pawn is often black parents, who want their children to get religious-based education from the public schools and think the religious schools, through their clever funding scheme, are giving them taxpayer money for free – after decades of feeling ignored by the state largesse. All this is  built on the fiction that state dollars “must follow the children” though the parents are mere pass-throughs to religious institutions that regularly rely on their religious givers to add to the $740 per pupil the state now provides.

There are ironies and paradoxes in the role that integration plays in all this. In the 1950s everyone was pleased when the US Supreme Court in  Brown vs. Board recognized that separate but equal schools was not really  equal and caused a national and often divisive sequence of decisions  to integrate school systems.   One famous result was white flight from urban centers.  Another was the growth of religious and private schools getting taxpayer money from states. 

The upshot in so many places seems like two divergent  school systems subsidized by the taxpayer – public school districts, which in Wisconsin actually operates most charter schools, many successfully, and religious or private voucher schools, some of which are good while most  have motives other than  academics that keep them humming. Yet all in PR pamphlets describe themselves as “great schools” while public school districts struggle to survive on less money.  In  the city of Milwaukee, that means 70% of  attendance stems from minority families, too poor to finance the range of resources suburban schools enjoy.

This is just one irony reinforced in the new data sets the MPS resolution provides.  From 50-50 in racial segregation in the public classroom 70 years ago, then a big plummet and then several gains back toward the middle in the 1970s, the state voucher payments came along in the mid nineties – and that began a steady growing racial imbalance in the Milwaukee Public Schools, which became dominated by black students.  Only some of this  can be blamed on white flight and housing patterns, but some also stems from the legislature’s  deliberate efforts on behalf of religious and private schools. 
Peterson in a photo by his wife

As Bob Peterson, school board member and former leader of the teachers union, notes: “These data expose hyper-segregation in MetroMilwaukee schools. It's past the time to end the new Jim Crow in MetroMKE -- in schools and other areas of society.”

 Peterson should know. He is a force behind the resolution, has been intimately involved in public schools as teacher and union leader before service on the board.  His wife, photographer and author Barbara Miner, in 2013 wrote what stands on the most incisive book about  what happened in Milwaukee schools – “Lessons From the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City.”

The board is pushing for  regionwide discussion, action and commitment not just from parents of schoolchildren but society on a whole.  Otherwise, many argue, movements like the Floyd marches are condemned to failure. 

Another reason why the MPS initiative is long overdue is how Wisconsin has become the GOP test tube for ignoring integration and in effect validating hyper-segregation.  For decades, the best corrective for education inequities was statewide integration and uniform funding – sensible in Mississippi, which has a lousy public school system, but it is equally lousy for blacks and whites who live in all counties.  Wisconsin may have 72 counties, but black and brown students are squeezed into a handful of urban counties, where the state funding disparities hit hardest.

This new MPS effort to rouse the regional community requires the black community to look at its own flaws at the same time as the activists are forcing the white community to examine its longer and more entrenched flaws -- the advantages of white privilege that white citizens have relied on both consciously and un. The lingering economic impact of this disparity has been slow to grab the conscience of white America, while black America has been open to economic come-ons (from mainly white right-wing money) they might not embrace so hard if our history had been different.

America has to look deeper than  the BLM T-shirts if it wants to truly address the chronic despair and real remedies for Wisconsin's African American communities. 

MPS is issuing that challenge, but it will be for nothing unless the larger community responds.   At a time when the coronavirus is forcing greater social distance, American must mentally move closer together on racial justice and  ingrown inequity.  Imagining that we can do this – well, that may be the biggest hurdle.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 

1 comment:

  1. Nearly all of Milwaukee's most pressing problems persist or worsen because the metro Milwaukee region is not a functioning unity. Other big American cities even in red-state political zones (Indianapolis, for example) have overcome this. Not here. Thus it's quite worthwhile for Milwaukee officials in all local units of government push in that direction.

    Of course our problems are not just about racial segregation but also economic segregation and racism itself, along with what is by now a tribal rural and suburban distrust of cities (made amusing when leaders in places like Mequon decide they should have one of everything Milwaukee has, without the baggage they imagine comes with it, like big performance halls or a public market, for example).

    Look at what happened to the regional transit authorities, thanks to GOP meddling. That further constrained progress here.

    When Milwaukee suburbs and exurbs really begin hurting as their widely spread infrastructure -- filled with strip malls, big-box retailers, highways and McMansions -- becomes economically and environmentally insustainable, they may become more amenable to dealing with the great source of their wealth and talent, the place they also greatly fear. And yet which they desperately seek to copy as they go along.