May 17 is the 60th anniversary of the famous U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the 1954 decision that banned the “separate but equal” doctrine that allowed states and school districts to designate some schools “whites-only” and others “Negroes-only” and helped launch an era of civil rights activism. I recently published a report by Economic Policy Institute researcher and author Richard Rothstein about the legacy of Brown, which you can read here, and here is a new piece about how the “school choice” movement has failed to honor the Brown decision. Written by Barbara Miner, a Milwaukee-based reporter and the author of “Lessons from the Heartland: A Turbulent Half-Century of Public Education in an Iconic American City,” this piece talks in part about Milwaukee, where, she writes, “more students receive vouchers than in any U.S. city” but where “we are abandoning the very institution of public education.”
By Barbara Miner
In Milwaukee, one of the country’s most segregated metropolitan regions, the May 17 anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education will be particularly bitter. Like other urban areas, this city has long ignored Brown’s proclamation 60 years ago that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” We live comfortably with rampant school segregation. But Milwaukee, where more students receive vouchers than in any U.S. city, has taken the abandonment of Brown to a new level. We are abandoning the very institution of public education.
I am often involved in national discussions on education reform. When I tell people I’m from Milwaukee, I frequently notice a vague look in their eye as they try to remember something about Milwaukee beyond beer, bratwurst and reruns of “Happy Days.” If they follow policy debates they might say, “Don’t you have that school choice movement?” And I cringe, because I refuse to use the term “school choice.”
As a woman, I understand the power and importance of choice. In education, used appropriately, choice can help ensure that public schools are sensitive to the varying needs of students, families and communities. But that is not how the term “school choice” is used today.
In the 1960s, the term “state’s rights” became code for opposing Brown and federal civil rights legislation. Today, “school choice” has to many people become code for initiatives that funnel public dollars into private voucher schools or privately run charters. It is code for reforms based on individual decisions by consumers and entrepreneurs rather than the collective, democratic decisions of a community.
In Milwaukee, it is code that rationalizes three separate and unequal systems, all funded by taxpayers: private voucher schools, public schools and charter schools, which operate in a grey market between public and private.
Interestingly, the first use of vouchers post-Brown was by whites hoping to escape desegregation. For five years, until federal courts intervened, officials closed the public schools in Prince Edward County, Virginia, rather than comply with orders to desegregate. White parents took advantage of vouchers to attend a private, whites-only academy.
In 1990, with proponents arguing for more “choices” for African-American students, Milwaukee became home to a voucher program under which public tax dollars pay the tuition at private schools. Today, some 25,000 students in Milwaukee receive such vouchers, most of them to attend religious schools.
But here’s the catch. Even if every single student attending a given school is paying tuition with a publicly funded voucher, the school is still defined as private. Voucher schools are thus able to circumvent any number of democratic safeguards, from adhering to open meetings and records requirements, to providing needed levels of special education services, to respecting constitutional rights of due process and freedom of speech.
Today, Milwaukee arguably has more educational choices than any other major city. In addition to vouchers we have “open enrollment” across districts. We have district charters, schools chartered by the city, schools chartered by the local university. We have union and non-union charters, community-based charters, virtual charters, and national “McFranchise” charter chains.
When it comes to curricular choices, we have Montessori schools, art specialty schools, Waldorf schools, language immersion schools, schools that focus on science, schools that teach creationism. We seem to have it all.
What we don’t have is progress in fulfilling the constitutional guarantee of equal educational opportunity. In recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress— sometimes dubbed the nation’s report card—the achievement gap between black and white students in Wisconsin was the widest among states in the nation in every test category. (Roughly three-quarters of the state’s African Americans live in Milwaukee.)
Equally disturbing, a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation cites Wisconsin as the worst state in the country in protecting equal opportunity for African-American children. The study is based on 12 key indicators, from birth weight, to children living in poverty, to educational achievement.
Which brings me back to Brown.
In laying the groundwork for its unanimous decision against segregated public schools, the Court noted that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” The justices went on to recognize “the importance of education to our democratic society,” calling education “the very foundation of good citizenship.”
Milwaukee, perhaps more than any other city, forces the question: If education is such an essential governmental function, why are we abandoning our public schools?
In Wisconsin, there is deep concern about our democratic structures, in particular attacks on the right to vote. In 2011, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed one of the strictest Voter ID bills in the country, with the issue still before state and federal courts. This spring, the legislature drastically curtailed early voting.
But undermining the right to vote is not the only way to weaken our democracy. Another way? Remove entire institutions, such as public education, from meaningful public oversight.
On this 60th anniversary of Brown, it’s essential to go beyond well-deserved concern about the separate and unequal realities shaping our public schools. We must also reaffirm our commitment to public schools as an essential democratic institution—of the people, by the people, and for the people.