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Rethinking SchoolsMarch/April 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Rethinking Schools
1001 E. Keefe Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53212
800/669-4192
rsleon@execpc.com
Contact: Leon Lynn


Half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate and unequal schools based on race, the Milwaukee area has undeniably returned to both separate and unequal education.

Through a project supported by PRRAC, Rethinking Schools, a nonprofit publisher of educational materials, has thoroughly documented the race-based inequities in Milwaukee-area schools, and how state policies allow those inequities to grow every year.

The report, and efforts by Rethinking Schools to disseminate its findings, have focused new community attention on race-based inequity in school funding, and have begun sowing the seeds of future efforts to address this inequity.

Focus and Methodology

There is an ongoing legal, legislative and political battle for equitable school funding in Wisconsin. Last year the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the state’s current school funding system, but the decision failed to settle many significant issues.

Notable among these issues is the question of whether Wisconsin’s school funding system violates the civil rights of students of color by denying them equal educational opportunity. This same issue was at the center of a recent New York court ruling, which held that New York State’s systematic underfunding of New York City schools, which serve a majority of students of color, violated students’ civil rights.

Rethinking Schools began its project with the intent of seeing whether there is a correlation between inequitable education funding in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and the racial composition of the districts in the area. The working hypothesis was that there is such a correlation, and that inequitable school funding thus potentially involves issues of civil rights.

We conducted an in-depth statistical analysis of school districts in the Milwaukee metropolitan area — examining questions of ethnicity and school funding and how they have played out over time. Rethinking Schools enlisted the aid of Dr. Michael Barndt, coordinator of the Data Center at the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee, to gather and interpret data on school funding, population growth and related issues affecting Milwaukee-area school districts.

Further, we commissioned the reporting and writing of journalistic human-interest articles, in order to detail the effects of inequitable funding on particular schools and students. To this end we secured the services of Joel McNally, an experienced journalist and a well-known media commentator in the Milwaukee area.

In addition, Rethinking Schools assembled an advisory committee of experts familiar with key aspects of the project, in order to ensure the validity of the project and its findings. They included:

  • William Lynch — A Milwaukee-based civil rights attorney, Mr. Lynch has represented the local NAACP chapter in litigation involving school desegregation, publicly funded vouchers for private schools, and homeowner insurance redlining. He is also the secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Diane Pollard — Dr. Pollard is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of the university’s doctoral program in urban education.

  • Doug Haselow — A former director of government relations for the Milwaukee Public Schools, Mr. Haselow is executive director of the Association for Equity in Funding, which advocates fair school funding in Wisconsin.

The project was coordinated by Barbara Miner, managing editor of our quarterly journal, Rethinking Schools.

Project Findings

The project clearly documents a sad set of facts: Twenty years ago, when whites and African Americans were present in roughly equal numbers in the Milwaukee Public Schools, MPS spending per student was about equal to spending in nearby suburbs, and both the city and its nearby suburbs spent significantly more than the state average. But as the percentage of MPS students of color has gone up, the district’s spending per student has fallen further and further behind that of nearby suburbs, and is now significantly less than the state average.

If MPS had received the average funding for “shared costs” received by school districts in nearby suburbs in the 1998-1999 school year, the district would have received $125 million in additional funding, our report notes. Instead, MPS has been forced to make significant budget cuts in order to address funding deficits: In 2000-2001 the district cut $32 million from its budget to address the shortfalls, and budget projections for 2001-2002 indicate that additional cuts of up to $20 million may be needed. These cuts have severely curtailed educational programs at schools throughout the district, resulting in staff and program reductions that leave Milwaukee’s schools less able to serve students.

The Rethinking Schools report makes it clear that state school-funding policies not only permit inequitable school funding to exist, but allow the gap between MPS and suburban districts to widen every year. Included in the report are detailed analyses of school funding policy: For example, the report examines the state’s “funding cap” system for schools, a mechanism designed to keep property taxes low. While eliminating this cap would certainly be an important step toward equalizing funding, the report concludes, this alone would not be enough to address the funding inequities.

The only solution, the report concludes, is to modernize the state’s school funding policies with the specific intent of addressing the inadequate funding of MPS: “It is a matter not only of educational necessity, but of civil rights and racial justice.”

Dissemination/Advocacy

Rethinking Schools assembled the project’s research and findings in a 60-page report: “The Return to Separate and Unequal: Metropolitan Milwaukee School Funding Through a Racial Lens.” To date, we have printed 750 copies of the report and circulated copies to key policymakers, including:
  • The mayor and all Milwaukee city council members.
  • All Milwaukee-area state legislators.
  • All members of the state’s joint finance and education reform committees.
  • All Milwaukee school board members and the MPS superintendent.
  • Community groups, including the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, and local NAACP and ACLU chapters.

In addition, The Association for Equity in Funding, a statewide group, bought and sent out more than 200 copies.
Copies of the report also were provided to select media outlets, including:
  • Local newspapers, including ethnic community newspapers.
  • Local TV and radio stations,
  • Mainstream national media, such as The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post.
  • Progressive media such as In These Times and The Nation.
  • Publications specializing in education, such as Education Week.

Articles and columns about the report have appeared in Wisconsin newspapers including The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, The Capital Times (Madison), The Waukesha Freeman, Kenosha News, Racine Journal-Times and The Janesville Gazette. Barbara Miner has been interviewed on regional TV and radio programs.

In addition, we have made the entire report available in PDF format on our Web site, www.rethinkingschools. org. To date, more than 700 copies have been downloaded.

In March, 2001, Rethinking Schools will publish and distribute 40,000 copies of the Spring issue of Rethinking Schools, which will feature the report, offer significant excerpts and direct people to our Web site if they wish to acquire the entire report.

Rethinking Schools is also playing an active role in community discussions of how to address the report’s findings. Recently, a meeting was held to discuss how to pursue new funding to research the possibility of legal action based on the report’s findings, especially in light of the recent court ruling on the inequities in New York City schools and their civil rights implications. Attendees included representatives from Rethinking Schools, the Association for Equity in Funding, and the local chapters of the ACLU and NAACP.
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