Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reimagine Milwaukee: It's time to discuss an essential reform

We in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association are reimagining and reinventing our union. But it’s not just our union that needs reimagining. It’s also MPS and Milwaukee itself.

In 2012, twelve years into the 21st Century, it’s long past time to address one of the most important but least-discussed issues in Milwaukee — segregation.

Most of Milwaukee's media and business/political leaders have a tradition of downplaying our region's “hypersegregation” and how it distorts not just educational opportunity but access to quality jobs, housing and healthcare.

When new groups announce their latest reform-of-the-day for MPS, more often than not racism, poverty and segregation are avoided. (A variation of this “let’s pretend racism and segregation don’t exist mentality” are those who blame parents and families for the problems of MPS, rather than dealing with institutional racism and poverty.)

Imagine what Milwaukee might have been like had the MPS School Board embraced court-ordered desegregation in 1976 and implemented a fair and thoughtful plan, instead of appealing the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Imagine how different metropolitan Milwaukee would look if the state legislature had the courage in the early 1980s to pass a metropolitan school desegregation plan that would have broken down both racial and class barriers in our county.

In neither case did political or business leaders speak out in favor of ending the segregation in our community. The consequences have been stark.

In 2010, Milwaukee was cited as the country’s most segregated metropolitan region in the country for African Americans. What’s more, our metropolitan region is divided not just by race, but wealth.
In 2010, Milwaukee’s poverty rate was 29.5 percent, with nearly half the city’s children living in poverty. In Waukesha county, meanwhile, the poverty rate was only 6.3 percent.
The jobs gap is equally troubling. As journalist Barbara Miner noted in her recent essay MPS at the Crossroads, “In 2009, 53.3 percent of working-age Black males in metropolitan Milwaukee were either unemployed or not in the labor force. The rate was 31 percentage points higher than for white men, leading to the highest Black/white jobless disparity in any major metropolitan area.”

In recent weeks, a number of articles in the national media have outlined the benefits of schools integrated by race and class.

Take the case of schools on U.S. military bases. These schools are among the most integrated in the country (nor are they subjected to the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind.) In addition, the children have at least one parent with a steady job and good healthcare. Overall, student achievement is high at the schools. As a Dec. 11 column by New York Times columnist Michael Winerip notes, “the achievement gap between black and white students continues to be much smaller at military base schools and is shrinking faster than at public schools.”

Winerip writes that the military “has a much better record with integration than most other institutions” and that at military schools “standardized tests do not dominate and are not used to rate teachers, principals or schools.”

It’s not likely that Milwaukee will be able to easily replicate the conditions at schools on military bases. But Memphis, another medium-sized city, provides another interesting example. This predominantly African American school district will be merging with the surrounding smaller (and whiter and more affluent) districts into a new countywide school district.

As Sam Dillon explained in a Nov. 5, 2011 New York Times article, this consolidation is bringing up issues of race and class. Median family income in Memphis is $32,000 a year, compared with the suburban average of $92,000; 85 percent of students in Memphis are black, compared with 38 percent in entire county.

Kenya Bradshaw, secretary of a commission set up to recommend policies for the new district, sees the merger as a chance for Memphis “to re-envision its educational system.”

“I hope people can see that this is an opportunity to reflect on our history and not make the same mistakes,” Ms. Bradshaw told the New York Times.

Issues of race and class are closely intertwined with student achievement. As a recent opinion by Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske asks, “Class Matters, Why Don’t We Admit it?” Ladd and Fiske criticize federal education policy for being “blind” to the impact of class. They note various national and international studies that demonstrate the relationship between “economic advantage and student performance.”

In Milwaukee, let’s start off 2012 right. Let’s reimagine metropolitan Milwaukee and frankly discuss our racial and class hypersegregation.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this insightful post Bob, I couldn't agree more. I would really like to know how Memphis accomplished a county-wide district. That would make so much sense here in Milwaukee. Moving to a more regional or county-wide system also makes sense in terms of services, resources and property taxes. Privilege in the suburbs comes in part from the concentration of poverty in the city. We have created artificial pockets of poverty and wealth. But joining forces does not mean that the suburbs lose--cities and suburbs have shared fates. And when it comes to a county-wide school district. Suburban schools may have access to more resources, but those districts cannot offer the range of innovative pedagogy including language immersion offered in MPS.