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A Critical Look at Choice Options as Solutions to Milwaukee’s Schooling Inequities


by Thandeka K. Chapman & René Antrop-González - 2011

Background/Context: The lack of court-ordered support for race-based policies that maintain and create integrated schools has forced communities of color to seek other avenues to obtain equitable education, such as school choice. Individual states and the federal government, as seen in grant provisions through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, are encouraging the expansion of choice at the very time that options for increasing student diversity, particularly racial diversity, are being narrowed by the courts.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The article uses critical race theory to examine the outcomes of specific school reforms, based on market theory models of school choice, that were designed to alleviate schooling inequities in urban districts.

Setting: The context of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, serves as a microcosm of urban districts that have embraced school choice to create more equitable schooling options. Milwaukee, like most metropolitan areas, has a history of court-ordered desegregation that served as a temporary solution to racially segregated schools. Given the federal and district court turn from supporting race-based desegregation policies in schools, Milwaukee and other metropolitan districts are looking for new models to serve students of color in their districts and cities.

Research Design: This article is a conceptual paper that incorporates data from a variety of sources to support the authors’ conclusions.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data for this project were taken from the U.S. Census Bureau, documents from newly created small high schools, such as Web sites and curriculum designs; current newspaper articles discussing issues of small high schools; archival newspaper articles documenting the creation of the 1990 choice and charter programs; professional experiences as a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates institutional selection and small-school team support system; and an empirical study that documents teachers’ attempts to provide curriculum and instruction in newly created small schools.

Conclusions/Recommendations: In combination, these data sources tell the story of market theory reforms that will continue to struggle to meet reformists’ goals to serve all Milwaukee populations so long as policy makers and the courts continue to deny the irrefutable power that race and class exercise in parental choice in U.S. urban schools.

The purpose of this article is to take a closer look at urban school reforms that are currently supported by multiple district and Supreme Court decisions as a means to address unresolved issues of racial segregation in urban school districts. In particular, this study explores various reasons that choice options, as alleviators of racial segregation and models of more equitable schools, have not been overwhelmingly successful. Researchers have cited choice options as solutions to school segregation and inter/intra-district equity among schools (Kahlenberg, 2007; Linn & Welner, 2007; Scott, 2005; Wells, Holme, López, & Cooper, 2000). Interestingly, these reports overlooked Milwaukee, the first choice system built to provide a wider array of school options for low-income parents. Instead, the authors discussed La Crosse, Wisconsin, a much smaller city struggling to serve a growing low-income Hmong population, as a possible model for socioeconomic diversity in schools. Why? Perhaps because


in the city of Milwaukee today, we have the nation’s oldest and only larger-scale voucher program, one that will test whether school accountability should rest solely in the hands of parents. After studying the Milwaukee voucher program for five years, the Public Policy Forum has found that the reality of parental choice accountability is falling far short of its promise. (VanDunk & Dickman, 2003, p. 3)


In part, the answer is that Milwaukee’s socioeconomic imbalances, racial challenges, and inner-city politics have overwhelmed the tenets of market theory that drive choice solutions. Henig (1994) warned, “Those inclined to favor choice because of its potential role in facilitating the pursuit of values such as individual development, cultural diversity, community empowerment, and effective schools should be wary of accepting a ride on the back of the market paradigm” (p. 20).  


In this article, Henig’s suggestion is taken to heart. This article highlights how choice options in Milwaukee as a solution to racial and social inequities have met with serious challenges and remain underexamined, flawed attempts to create interest convergence between poor parents of color, middle-class parents, and White parents. Through a critical race theory (CRT) analysis of market theory, we demonstrate that market theory in practice becomes an example of a deceptive “shell game” or “three-card monte” competition in which poor parents move their children from school to school with little information on school outcomes or performance in the hopes of placing them in one of the few available high-achieving schools.


For this project, data were taken from the U.S. Census Bureau; documents from newly created small high schools such as Web sites and curriculum designs; current newspaper articles discussing issues of small high schools; archival newspaper articles documenting the creation of the 1990 choice and charter programs; professional experiences as a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates institutional selection and small-school team support system; and an empirical study that documents teachers’ attempts to provide curriculum and instruction in newly created small schools. In combination, these data sources tell the story of market theory reforms that will continue to struggle to meet reformists’ goals to serve all Milwaukee populations so long as policy makers and the courts continue to deny the irrefutable power that race and class exercise in parental choice in U.S. urban schools.


CRITICAL RACE THEORY


The June 28, 2008, United States Supreme Court decision contending, inter alia, that the assignment of students to schools based solely on their race violates the 14th Amendment’s equal rights guarantee, was viewed by the public as a stunning blow to racial desegregation in urban schools. In fact, it was one of many targeted strikes to Brown legislation in the past decade (Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell, 1991; Manning v. The School Board of Hillsborough County Florida, 2001; Missouri v. Jenkins, 1995; People Who Care, et al. v. Rockford Board of Education, School District No. 205, 2001). Moreover, because of this previous legislation, which rolled back the intentions of Brown and the failure of education reformers to give full credit to the social weights of racism and classism in the United States, the Community Schools v. Seattle School District No.1, et al. and Crystal D. Meredith, Custodial Parent and Next Friend of Joshua Ryan McDonald v. Jefferson County Board of Education, et al. decisions do not significantly impact many of the largest urban school systems that serve majority numbers of poor Black and Latino/a children. The dwindling court-ordered rulings to support race-based policies that maintain and create integrated schools force communities of color to embrace other avenues, such as choice, that are being heavily implemented in their communities. Individual states and the federal government, as seen in grant provisions through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, are encouraging the expansion of choice at the very time that options for increasing student diversity, particularly racial diversity, are being “narrowed by the courts” (Scott, 2005, p. 5).


Given the connections between new policy initiatives, the lack of court support for desegregation, the impact of race and racism on urban educational reform, and the intersections of race and class, CRT is an appropriate theoretical framework for discussing the connections between factors of race and class that hinder or facilitate the acceptance of new reforms that attempt to move beyond the (im)possibilities of racial and socioeconomic school integration. Critical race theorists believe that race and racism affect the individual, society, and the institutions that carry out the edicts from the three branches of the United States Constitution. The pervasiveness of race informs the rationales for decisions at all levels of government. CRT posits that the United States developed and prospered through its dependence on the work of slaves and immigrants and the subjugation of Native American nations. The forging of the United States through the oppression, dominance, and annihilation of people of color is stitched into the fabric of the country, and this history creates binaries and hierarchies of race, class, and gender that remain woven in the laws, policies, and social understandings that shape the country.

Tenets of CRT are used for examining and discussing why and how the theory of a market-driven school model looks vastly different in practice at the ground level. CRT has several concepts that explain the persistence of inequality in education: centrality of race and racism, interest convergence, intersectionality, the notion of Whiteness as property, and the notion of color-blindness (Tate, 1997).


CRT challenges claims of color-blindness and meritocracy in legal doctrine and public and private institutional policies by demonstrating how history and the present continue to explain age-old mechanisms of power and privilege in education. Critical race theorists deconstruct education policy, discourse, and practice to dispel myths of neutrality, fairness, and White racial superiority that go unquestioned by the majority of U.S. citizens. Color-blind ideologies stem from the belief that issues of racial equity have been resolved by past legislation targeting race or can be resolved by future policies that strive to look beyond issues of race to focus on other issues of subordination (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). In education, the creation of color-blind policies has been a part of a 50­-year backlash against Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Saturated and frustrated with unsuccessful attempts to minimize achievement gaps among Black, White, and Brown children, the courts and policy makers have redirected their efforts to develop policies, such as Milwaukee’s choice options, that focus on socioeconomic stratifications, and ignore the coupling of race and class in these instances.


INTEREST CONVERGENCE


Interest convergence is the political outcome of struggles between the political power bloc and politically marginalized groups attempting to gain greater, more equitable access to legal, political, and social institutions. Both groups may claim success in the outcome of the struggle. “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equity will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites” (Bell, 1995, p. 22). The compromise is never as altruistic as history textbooks lead children to believe, and it always serves a greater purpose for those holding privileged and powerful positions. Interest convergence allows minority groups to gain greater access to social equity, but often by sacrificing something yet unknown and unforeseen (Irvine & Irvine, 2007; Milner & Howard, 2004).


THE CENTRALITY OF RACE


CRT advocates for a complex articulation of how race is performed, understood, and manipulated primarily in the United States. Race is the central tenet of CRT because of its pervasive nature and influence throughout various realms of social thought and behavior. Racism, or more specifically, White supremacy, has shaped the norm, values, and history of the United States through a system of binaries that continues to conflate good and moral with Whiteness, and evil and immoral with Blackness.


Historically, white supremacy has been premised upon various political, scientific, and religious theories, each of which relies on racial characterizations and stereotypes about Blacks that have coalesced into an extensive legitimating ideology. Today it is [italics added] probably not controversial to say that these stereotypes were developed primarily to rationalize the oppression of Blacks. What is overlooked, however, is the extent to which these stereotypes serve a hegemonic function by perpetuating a mythology about both blacks and [italics added] whites even today, reinforcing an illusion of a white community that cuts across ethnic, gender, and class lines. (Crenshaw, 1988, pp. 1370–1371)


It is the reliance on Blackness to solidify Whiteness that in part necessitates the need to maintain the ideology of race and to justify systemic racism. “Racism helps to create an illusion of unity through the oppositional force of a symbolic ‘other’” (Crenshaw, 1988, p. 1372) in a way, I would add, that is unique to this particular form of oppression and the sanctioning of policies that historically and presently privilege White citizens over citizens of color.


INTERSECTIONALITY


The interdependence among issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality further complicates academic and practical understandings of how and why people are being oppressed or have been oppressed in the past. To ignore the stratifications of race and racism that are caused by other group memberships would be to present an essentialist view of race. In the field of education, Tate (1997) affirmed, “Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995) recognized the importance of gender-and class based analyses; however, they asserted that the significance of race in the United States, and more specifically ‘raced’ education could not be explained with theories of gender or class” (p. 196). Crenshaw’s (1995) reconceptualization of “intersectionality” addresses the interplay between people’s multiple identities and multiple oppressions bonded to those identities. Crenshaw’s concept speaks to the complex interactions among race, gender, class, and sexuality that challenge essentialist positions of race. In this article, the connections between race and class are clearly visible but function collectively and independently to work against a unified racial positioning. The construct of intersectionality critiques systems of oppression between and among racial groups. These critiques come into play in Milwaukee when discussing White and Black middle-class flight from urban areas.


SCHOOL CHOICE/MARKET DRIVEN CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF SCHOOLING


School choice, as a theoretical rationale for urban schools, posits that school districts are composed of inherently large, monopolistic bureaucracies. Consequently, these districts and the schools they operate lack accountability measures and the incentive to be innovative because of the lack of competition they face from outside school-related entities (Chubb & Moe, 1990; Friedman, 1962). Because these districts are exempt from this outside competition, they are allowed to exist in spite of often mediocre standards and results, as measured by lack of rigorous college preparation curricula, low standardized test scores, and abysmal graduation rates. Hence, school choice advocates invite and strongly encourage students and their parents/caregivers to exit failing schools and enter schools they deem as being better.


This exiting and entering process is theorized as creating competition among schools, thus compelling schools to improve and better accommodate their students’ needs. The consequences of large numbers of students leaving any particular school can result in economic losses and loss of prestige for that school. On a larger scale, if a substantial number of schools in any one district lose large numbers of students, whole districts can be driven to bankruptcy and a sullied reputation. In urban school districts that purport to educate large numbers of students of color and poor Whites, market-driven conceptualizations of schooling have serious implications for how educationists consider race and class issues in school choice.


Market theory perspectives, then, pose that the move to decentralize failing schools serves the interests of all parents. Based on market theory, the creation of choice options should manifest itself in several ways:


Create healthy competition among schools

Force public schools to revise and generate new curricula and pathways for student success

Provide options for middle-class families to remain in inner-city districts

Provide opportunities for indigenous leadership to start new successful schools

Racially and socially integrate good schools based on student interests and quality programs

Force unsuccessful schools to close


The expectation is that parents are more empowered to directly affect their child’s schooling experiences and opportunities in a timely fashion. This community pressure theoretically should serve to keep schools motivated to provide quality education for all children regardless of race, class, or gender.


SNAPSHOT OF MILWAUKEE


Over the past 70 years, Milwaukee has made multiple attempts to serve the needs of all families living in the city—White families, families of color, and upper-income, middle-income, and low-income citizens. Toward that effort, Milwaukee has been maintaining a system of open choice since the 1930s in which students could travel to different schools outside their neighborhoods when a local school did not have a particular program that met the needs of the children living in a neighborhood (Dougherty, 2004). As the city’s African American population grew 68% in the 1950s, White and socially established African American families from integrated neighborhoods used choice options to send their children to schools outside the “Inner Core,” where poor African American families were forced to settle.  The Inner Core is a 400-block radius on the near north side of Milwaukee, where redlining and restrictive housing policies highly constrained African American housing mobility (Dougherty). Today, it is the most heavily concentrated area of poverty in the city.


Milwaukee was slow to join the battle for desegregated schools because the city was able to maintain prime examples of integrated schools at each grade level. In the decade of the 1960s, African American students became one fifth of the school population. As the African American population rapidly expanded and sought to move out of the racially saturated Inner Core, White families in fear of interracial marriage and redlined property values left the north side schools and racially integrated neighborhoods almost entirely. At the same time, White working-class ethnic neighborhoods on the South Side became more vigilant about keeping African American families out of their neighborhoods.


In a U.S. account of apartheid, as late as the 1960s, African American workers needed a work visa to cross the 16th Street bridge to work on the south side of Milwaukee. The formation and fortification of White neighborhoods on the south side of Milwaukee forced Attorney Lloyd A. Barbee to bring a class action lawsuit against the City of Milwaukee in 1965 (Amos v. Board of School Directors, 1976). In 1976, Judge John Reynolds found Milwaukee “engaged in practices with the intent and for the purpose of creating and maintaining a segregated school system, and that such practices had the effect of causing current conditions of racial imbalance in the Milwaukee public schools” and therefore ruled in favor of school desegregation. The next 2 years brought on a flurry of court activity from the Supreme Court back to the District court, in which the Milwaukee and the plaintiffs came to a court-approved agreement in 1979 (Charne, 2005). The agreement was followed by the busing of White and African American students with the goal to fully integrate the district’s schools. Later, Milwaukee adopted a voluntary interdistrict agreement between Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs to allow African American students to attend suburban schools.


Although open choice remains a viable theoretical option for Milwaukee families, segregated housing continues to plague Milwaukee and prevents North Side African American and Hmong families from accessing well-resourced schools on the South Side that are far from their homes. In CRT, this is an example of interest convergence, in which the option is theoretically available and maintained to benefit all families; however, transportation issues, time considerations, and distance from home makes placing Black and Hmong students an untenable choice. It is worth noting that Latino families are more represented in South Side schools because of Latino neighborhoods that border and intersect with White working-class enclaves. Interestingly, some South Side schools are positioned in the far southwest corner of the city, deep in White working-class neighborhoods with few public transportation services. The primary beneficiaries of the policy became middle-class students whose families can drive them significant distances for magnet school programs each morning.


MILWAUKEE CHILDREN DEMOGRAPHICS


Milwaukee’s ability to properly fund public schools and support families with school-age children is further impacted by the fact that 30% of the population is under the age of 17 years. This means that 30% of the city population does not significantly generate revenue or pay sales tax outside their parental income units. The American Community Survey for 2005–2007 documented the 164,349 children living in the City of Milwaukee (see Table 1). In Milwaukee, approximately 42% of the children aged 3–18 years live with two parents, 7% live with a male householder without a female counterpart, and 51% live with a female householder with no male counterpart. Milwaukee children suffer from high rates of poverty, with 41% of the children receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the form of cash or food benefits, 37% residing in households with incomes below the poverty level, and 7% being raised by a grandparent.


Students of color disproportionately constitute the school-age population and hail from single-parent homes (see Table 1; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009).  


Table 1. Milwaukee Children Demographics


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CHOICE MOVEMENTS AND RACE


Choice options follow a long line of reforms that are designed to alleviate inequitable schooling practices for Milwaukee disparate populations. These practices prevent families from emotionally and financially investing in public school education. The disinvestment in schools is said to lead affluent parents to choose other school settings by moving to suburban districts or placing their children in private schools. Choice options designed by public policy hope to provide both less affluent poor parents and middle-class affluent parents with better schooling options. In Wisconsin, multiple reforms based on market theory have been implemented to reach the goal of better schooling options for everyone: magnet schools, gifted programs, voucher programs, and charter schools. This article is primarily concerned with the open enrollment, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), and the charter school programs that extract money from the greater Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) budget to support these initiatives.


Choice options are supposed to serve White populations by allowing them to create their own schools, use magnet schools, and use interdistrict busing, and parents of color who find their neighborhood schools unacceptable may now access these same options to help their children. Welner (2006) explained, “On the one hand, they constitute movement away from neighborhood schools and toward market-based resource allocation. On the other hand, they place constraints on the marketplace, designed to minimize segregation. They therefore are best understood as pursuing both goals: free market and integration” (p. 364). This common desire for more choice options beyond the traditional boundaries of the district system constitutes the axis of interest convergence among White, African American, Latino, middle-class, and low-income families in Milwaukee and other urban districts (Bell, 2004; Dougherty, 2004; Henig, 1994; VanDunk & Dickman, 2003). This example of interest convergence for the creation of choice has especially been historically visible in Milwaukee, where Black education scholars and political activists have rallied on behalf of the rights of their children and youth since the early 1920s (Dougherty). The calling for these additional schooling options—more notably, vouchers—was in large part conceptualized by progressive Black leaders such as Annette “Polly” Williams and Howard Fuller, in conjunction with White conservatives (Dougherty; Pedroni, 2006). Pedroni suggested that this coalition of “strange bedfellows” must compel progressive educational scholars and activists alike to rethink their current stance on claiming that these progressive Black voucher advocates are merely passive pawns of White conservative forces.


The broadest available choice program is Milwaukee’s interdistrict open enrollment program. Students may apply to a nearby suburban district. If the school or district is accepting outside students, the student will be accepted into the school. The school district greatly benefits because the per-pupil allotment from Milwaukee, which in many cases is larger than the per-pupil allotment of the surrounding districts, follows the student to the new location. Students who use the general open enrollment are responsible for their own transportation.


The most successful form of this policy has been the Chapter 220 program created to racially balance the nearby suburbs and MPS district in the 1970s. Although all students are eligible for open enrollment, only students of color may apply for the Chapter 220 program. Originally, the program only served low-income families of color, but because of political pressures, it was eventually opened to all families of color. This political pressure stems from professional middle-class families of color who want to leave MPS, but many of them cannot move out of the city limits because of the city ordinance that requires city workers to live within the taxable city limits. Chapter 220 was focused on the needs of low-income children of color within racial groups, but it soon became an outlet for preachers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers to remove their children from MPS, resulting in a drain of middle-class students from the city schools.


MILWAUKEE PARENTAL CHOICE PROGRAM


The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) currently lists the purpose of the MPCP, commonly referred to as vouchers and Chapter PI 35, as:


Under s. 119.23 (2) (a), Stats., any qualified pupil in grades kindergarten to 12 who resides within a city may attend, at no charge, any participating private school located in the city. Participation in the Milwaukee parental choice program is limited to 15% of the school district’s membership as specified under s. 119.23 (2) (b), Stats.    


Participation in the voucher school program is strictly based on family size and income, currently at 175% below the federal poverty line. Wisconsin state law prohibits a participating MPCP private school from charging the difference between a student’s voucher and the school’s annual tuition fees. Hence, only the poorest of children and youth in Milwaukee qualify for the voucher program. Because of Milwaukee Black and Latino community pressures and the continued systemic culture of academic underachievement of traditional Milwaukee public schools, Governor Jim Doyle authorized the raising of the aforementioned 15% cap on student enrollment to 22%.


The MPCP is a portal for helping parents negotiate the more than 127 private schooling options available for Milwaukee students. A total of 81% of all MPCP students attend religious schools (Schmidt & Dickman, 2009). Milwaukee students attend these programs using vouchers that are publicly funded through state (55%) and local MPS District funds (45%). Each student is seen as having a $6,607 voucher to be used by the school to fund existing programs. In the 2008–2009 school year, the program documented 19,538 students in K–2 private schools (Burmaster, 2009).


CHARTER SCHOOLS


Under Governor Doyle’s leadership, choice options in Wisconsin have expanded to include various models of charter schools. These schools do not have income level restrictions. The goals of charter schools are more clearly aligned with market theory as both a source of potentially good schooling options and as a means to improve public schooling. The Wisconsin DPI defined charter schools through the following definition:


Charter schools are public, nonsectarian schools created through a businesslike contract or “charter” between the operators and the sponsoring school board or other chartering authority. The Wisconsin charter school law gives charter schools freedom from most state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for results. The charter defines the missions and methods of the charter school; the chartering authority holds the school accountable to its charter. The charter school motto is “Autonomy for Accountability.”


Wisconsin established charter schools to foster an environment of creativity. They can exist as living laboratories that influence the larger public school system and introduce an element of competition within that system. Charter schools are created with the best elements of regular public schools in mind. Their leaders may experiment with different instructional theories, site-based management techniques, and other innovations. They learn, sometimes by trial and error, what works best for their student population. Regular schools can observe and learn from what happens in the charter school and make similar improvements. Through this process, the entire public school system is continually challenged to improve itself. (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 2007)


Many of these schools have unique academic themes and foci that allow students to receive in-depth experiential learning opportunities in different academic subjects, careers, and disciplinary interests. Any rendition of K–12 charter schools can be created through four governing bodies in Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee oversees five schools, MPS oversees 43 charter schools, the University of Milwaukee oversees 10 schools, and the University of Wisconsin, Parkside, does not currently oversee charters in Milwaukee. Each charter school receives a per-pupil allotment of $7,669, which is subtracted from the larger school district’s budget (84%) and the state budget (16%). There is no limit or cap on the number of students who may participate in these schools, nor is there an income requirement (Burmaster, 2009).


Just as it is difficult to generalize sliding political alliances and societal influences that affect the creation of policies in public education, it is also difficult to generalize research findings across the spectrum of research on the outcomes of these same reforms. Each state has taken a different approach to charter schools, and findings rejecting and favoring these programs continue to grow on both sides of the debate. Wells (2002) stated,


Indeed the only consistency across this diverse and diffuse reform “movement” is that charter schools all operate under the guidelines of state policies that promise greater autonomy in exchange for greater academic accountability, but generally fail to support the efforts of committed educators, especially those serving the most disadvantaged students in grassroots and non-profit charter schools. (p. 3)


Others argued that although charter schools do not consistently show improvement over their public school counterparts, it is too early in the initiative to make judgments about the success, or lack thereof, of these reforms (Ancess & Allen, 2006; Kahne, Sporte, & Easton, 2005; Shaw, 2006; Wolf, 2008).


Research, however, seemingly weighs more heavily against the supposition that charter schools decrease racial segregation. In fact, current research shows that without a race-based policy attached to choice and charter reforms, these efforts increase segregation in metropolitan areas. Scholars have researched the possibility that school choice could alleviate socioeconomic segregation (Linn & Welner, 2007; Saporito & Sohoni, 2006; Wells et al., 2000). These studies and others (Frankenberg, Lee, & Orfield, 2003; Scott, 2005; Welner, 2006) found that, “with some important exceptions, the availability of private, charter, magnet, or other specialty schools was associated with greater, not less, segregation” (Linn & Welner, pp. 41–42).  


In their public policy report titled “After a Decade of Choice, Voucher Schools Look Like MPS,” Schmidt and Dickman (2009) reported that the overwhelming influx of students of color has led schools in MPCP to mirror the demographics of MPS, without showing significant differences in achievement for the students across the majority of the schools. “The average MPCP school enrolls 85% minority students, including 67% African-American students” (Schmidt & Dickman, p. 6). Therefore, what was proposed as a viable way to integrate schools has, in fact, led to the racial segregation of private schools outside the traditional district.


MILWAUKEE AS A MICROCOSM OF MARKET THEORY OUTCOMES


For each choice and charter initiative in Milwaukee, market theory was eventually bent to the practical political will of the times. Market theory does not account for the various alliances and political compromises, functioning within social and racial constructs of “good schools,” that impact the outcomes of education reforms. “All efforts eventually collide with the reality that the ‘system’ they yearn to reform is either their regulator or their customer (or their political opponent), and they must make their peace with it” (Finn, 2008, p. 28). As with other reforms, such as desegregation, the outcome of market theory reforms often look quite different from the original design.


WHITE AND MIDDLE-CLASS FLIGHT AND MARKET THEORY


These political alterations serve a small percentage of White or Black middle-class families who seek to place their children in high-performing schools with a majority of children from families they see as valuable and like-minded. Caldas and Bankston (2005) explained,


This phenomenon, known as white flight—and now middle-class black flight—has sabotaged efforts across the U.S. to racially balance schools and in many cases has left school systems worse off than before desegregation policies were implemented. The motivations of white parents removing their children from minority schools have been questioned; we suggest that most of these parents are simply acting out of rational self-interest for the well-being of their children. (p. 46)


Without debating the idea of “rational self-interest” in the preceding quote, we suggest that  market theory suffers from the same limited idealism being critiqued in the quote. Indeed, Welner’s (2006) literature review of the foreseen benefits to integration are largely superficial for White parents and focus more on a greater societal benefit. “The most direct educational harm of segregation is felt by students of color, who tend to be enrolled in schools with fewer resources and lower expectations” (p. 352). What is then asked of White families, in particular, is to act from a standpoint of altruism toward people of color that may not in fact benefit their own children in a tangible sense of reward. The failure of market theory to address public ideology that poses “Whiteness” as valuable and “Blackness” as deficit has resulted in the continued flight of White and middle-class families from the inner city to majority-White suburbs. Middle-class White families continue to flee the city for the surrounding suburbs while working-class families fight to maintain ethnic enclaves. Ladson-Billings (2007) stated,


Of course, in the best possible worlds we would want all children to have the opportunity to attend fully integrated, well-funded schools. But we do not live in the best of all possible worlds and we cannot compel white, middle class families to send their children to school with black and brown children. When we have attempted to do so they have abandoned the city and/or abandoned public schooling. (p. 6)


In their push to recreate society as a model of fairness and equity, reform advocates have underestimated the power of racism and classism in parental selections for schools (Orfield & Lee, 2004). Whiteness as property is maintained through the housing markets in suburban areas that are too expensive for the majority of people of color living in Milwaukee. In turn, the high regard for the schools is supported by the lack of people of color, the limited number of poor students, and the property value of the homes.


Nowhere has this flight of middle-class families been more significant than in urban districts with histories of desegregation initiatives that have attempted to rectify issues of inequity in school districts. All sets of parents are disgruntled with urban schools, White parents do not want their children integrated with large numbers of children of color (Lewis, 2005), middle-class parents of color do not their children in underperforming schools with poor children, and poor families recognize that their children are often treated with disregard and disrespect in these schools. “Rather, efforts at desegregation have ultimately been self-defeating precisely because they have sought to use public schools to redesign American society from above according to the blueprints of aloof social planners. And most Americans have been operating from a different set of blueprints than the social engineers” (Caldas & Bankston, 2005, p. 4). Given the rapid resegregation of urban districts and the failure to compel White families to remain in racially diverse communities, what is clearer than ever before is the lack of value that Whites hold for integrated spaces. In a CRT analysis, the pervasive nature of racism as devaluing the contributions of people of color and fearing their presence in the schools as indicators of lower achievement levels refutes the successful implementation of policies that seek to integrate schools.


Regardless of the educational reforms and incentives created to lure and sustain White middle-class families in the public schools in Milwaukee, the last decade has witnessed tremendous White flight from the city (Browne-Marshall, 2007; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). The percentage of White families in the city of Milwaukee decreased from 50% of the city’s population in 2000 to 44% in 2005 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005); the percentage of White students in the public schools continues to decrease, from 16% in 2003 to 14% in 2007. These figures show that approximately 40,000 children living in the city are not in MPS. As Milwaukee’s general population continues to decline and new White suburbs strangle the city (Irons, 2002), there is little hope that choice strategies for fixing the schools are viable.


The third and final reason is what scholars, such as Squires and Vélez (1987) and Dougherty (2004), call the “tipping point,” where White people are willing to live and learn with a small percentage of people of color or poor people, as shown by the success of the Chapter 220 program, which allows small numbers of students of color to enter suburban schools; however, there is a limit to the percentage they see as valued and not detrimental. Caldas and Bankston (2005) explained at length the thought process of affluent parents:


Regardless of how great or little a part funding for schools plays in the quality of education, if schoolmates with educational advantages are the most important influence on educational quality, then when parents try to put their children into the best schools they can afford, whether they realize it or not, they are placing their children with the most advantaged schoolmates they can afford. . . . The American history of racial and ethnic inequality has left us with a substantial achievement gap between whites and minority students. This means that the racial composition of a school is, unfortunately, still a big part of what determines the utility of the school. (p. 118)


This explanation of how parents value schools is not politically correct or a model for schools promoting social change through education, but an accurate depiction of how race and racism is a significant actor in issues of schooling. Additionally, it is a realistic view of parents and schooling that prohibits market theory from fulfilling its promise to those families who believed it would reform urban schools.


SMALL HIGH SCHOOLS AND WHITE AND MIDDLE-CLASS FLIGHT


The gap between White children living in Milwaukee and the number attending MPS reinforces the notion of resistance to urban schools. MPS hosts 89,903 of the 130,000 school-age children in the city (see Table 2). Around 25,000–30,000 students participate in choice options outside of MPS. This resistance means that approximately another 10,000 families in the district pay for schooling outside of MPS.  


Table 2: Breakdown of Racial Demographics for the City of Milwaukee and MPS

 

# Pupils under age of 19

% White

% Black

% Latino

% Asian American

% Native

American

City of Milwaukee*

130,000

44

40

14.5

3.6

0.7

Milwaukee Public Schools**

89,903

14

62

17

5

3

* U.S. Census Bureau, 2005. 2005 American Community Study. Retrieved July 26, 2007, from http://www.census.gov/.

** Burmaster, 2007. Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Retrieved July 24, 2007, from http://www.dpi.state.wi.us/.


A prime example of how the endemic nature of race and racism overshadows the promise of market theory is the small-high school reform movement in Milwaukee. This reform is tied to choice and charter reforms because small high schools can be created under the banner of numerous schooling options. Milwaukee, in combination with support from the Gates Foundation, MPS, the City of Milwaukee, the MPCP, and UW Milwaukee has over 40 K–12 schools that are chartered by various sets of constituents: MPS, UW Milwaukee, the City of Milwaukee, and UW Parkside. There are approximately 5,200 Milwaukee students in these schools (MPS, 2009).


Table 3 shows the racial breakdowns of the Milwaukee choice and charter small high schools in existence. In only five of the schools listed are White students represented as more than 30% of the student population. These charter schools are located on Milwaukee’s South Side. All five schools are MPS chartered, meaning that the schools retain certified teachers and full district resources and public facilities that help support the schools, students, and teachers. All small high schools except one have a 50% or higher population of students receiving free and/or reduced lunch. Almost one third of the small high schools have > 90% African American student populations (Burmaster, 2009).


Table 3. Milwaukee Small School Demographics 2006/2007

School codes

School

type

#  Years open

High school

students

%

Black

%

Latino

%

Asian

%

White

%

Native

% Free/

reduced

lunch

% Disabled

%

English

proficient


MPS

  


23,977


63


17


4


14


< 3


73


19

 

A*

MPS Charter

4

265

4

95

0

1

0

89

11

50

B

MPS Non-

Instr.

2005

3

71

65

31

0

3

1

58

11

84

C

MPS Charter

4

84

80

6

2

2

2

67

31

98

D*

MPS Charter

4

156

92

3

1

4.5

0

82

18

99

E

MPCP

No Data

          

F*

MPS Charter

4

200

99

1

0

1

0

79

20

99

G*

MPS Charter

4

144

99

0

0

0

1

81

34

99

H*

MPS Charter

3

115

57

11

1

31

0

61

33

98

I*

MPS Charter

3

88

43

23

1

30

1

82

24

99

J

MPCP

Closed

          

K*

MPS Charter

5

147

27

24

1

44

1

65

18

99

L*

MPS Charter

5

311

42

16

6

33

0

62

10

97

M*

MPS Charter

4

171

96.5

1.5

0

1

1

86

29

99

N*

MPS Charter

Fall

2007

78

68

19

0

9

4

15

85

96

O*


MPCP

No Data

2

         


School codes

School

type

# Years open

High school

students

%

Black

%

Latino

%

Asian

%

White

%

Native

% Free/

reduced

lunch

% Disabled

%

English

proficient


P*

MPS Charter

No Data

2

         

Q*

MPCP

No Data

2

         

R*

MPS Charter

3

156

83

5

4

5

0

79

44

97

S*

UW Charter

No Data

2.5

         

T*

City

Charter

CLOSED 2008

Open 2 years

131

96

2

.8

1

0

13

14

100

U*

MPS

Charter

2

342

88

3

2

6

0

74

42

99

V*

MPS Charter

Open Fall

2007

111

97

0

0

1

2

93

19

99

W*

Private

No Data

Open Fall 2007

         

X*

MPCP

No Data

3

         

Y

MPS Charter

No Data

178

11

50

0

38

1

58

6

93

Z*

MPS Traditional

3

342

92

1

4

1

0

76

26

97

AA*

MPS Traditional

3

343

92

1

4

1

0

76

26

97

AB*

MPS

Traditional

3

381

92

1

4

1

0

76

26

97

AC*

MPS Charter

Open Fall 2007

83

4.8

91.6

1.2

4.8

0

83

4.8

70


These data were provided by the Milwaukee Public Schools Annual Report Cards and Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data. Choice schools (MPCP) and UW Milwaukee charter schools are not required to provide data for either institution. Other “no data” listings are from new schools that do not have report cards up and running in either system at this point in time.

MPCP = Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Non-Instr = Noninstrumentality is a partnership with Milwaukee Public Schools that allows the school maximum autonomy within the guideline of the district.

* Those schools created using Bill and Melinda Gates funding opportunities.


MILWAUKEE’S LOW-INCOME PARENTS AND CULTURAL CAPITAL


Several concerns point to the low numbers of middle-class parents using the choice and charter schools as educational options for high schools in Milwaukee. According to market theory, parents will close ineffective schools by opting to move their students. However, this notion has not been the case in Milwaukee and other urban districts (VanDunk & Dickman, 2003; Wells, 2002). Research shows that low-income parents continue to place their children in academically low-achieving schools and schools with no record of excellence. In Milwaukee, charter and choice school closings have been related to mishandled funds or financial issues unrelated to parental satisfaction. Finn (2008), a long-standing advocate of choice, lamented,


Once upon a time, I expected the market to provide correctives for mediocre schools—or put them of out business. But I’ve learned from long immersion in the choice wars . . . that many American parents are unfussy customers when it comes to academic performance. They care about a safe, nurturing environment and a caring teacher—and about convenience and sports and such. These are significant considerations, yes, but not enough to boost achievement. (p. 28)


Generally, Milwaukee parents accessing choice and charter options are low-income families who value different aspects of schooling than their middle-class counterparts.  Milwaukee parents with children in MPCP and charter schools are generally satisfied with the school’s affective components, such as parent input, teacher/student relationships, and student emotional well-being, even though there is little evidence of higher academic achievement (Public Policy Forum, 2006; Wolf, 2008). When describing the challenge of combining these affective qualities with academic standards, Michelle Fine (in Toch, 2003) stated,


Small . . . will produce a sense of belonging almost immediately, but hugging is not the same as algebra. Rigor and care must be braided together, or we run the risk of creating small, nurturing environments that aren’t schools. Keeping kids connected to schools and schooling is critical, but ultimately it’s merely a means to a larger end—high standards of student achievement. Ultimately, the first priority of every school must be to stretch students academically to prepare them for the academic rigors of college. (p. 121)


This statement reflects the understanding of middle-class parents. Middle-class White parents can assume affective characteristics because of the cultural matching between schools in White families in the forms of White teachers from similar backgrounds, European culture as the center of the curriculum, and White middle-class morals and values as the majoritarian ideological framework for schools. Although middle-class parents of color cannot assume these cultural congruencies and may in fact suffer from anxiety over the incongruencies, they are willing to sacrifice the affective components for academic rigor. By and large, middle-class parents seek academic rigor and a community of other middle-class students with equal  or more social capital.


CONCLUSIONS


This critique of choice options is not an indictment of the reform initiatives explained herein and/or of the larger public school system described in this article. Schools exist in racial, sociopolitical, and economic contexts that impact the implementation and success of any theory of reform. Although market theories related to schooling are theoretically sound, in reality, these types of theories often do not take into serious account the complex ways in which race/ethnicity and class intersect and inform the myriad choices that those with plentiful resources and valued social networks use at their ready disposal in the name of unearned privileges like Whiteness. “When changing the ground rules, does it create new and perhaps favorable opportunities for schools to succeed? It’s no guarantee that they will” (Finn, 2008, p. 28).


Given the racial and economic contexts of urban schools, market theory cannot successfully alter the achievement opportunities for low-income children of color in urban settings. These theories are based on a nonexistent colorblind reality in which parents will choose to send their children to schools with children from backgrounds they perceive to be deficit, deficient, and detrimental to their children. The realities of race and racism continue to reify racially stratified housing and segregated schooling in ways that are difficult to combat through public policy (Bell, 2004). When explaining the penetrating impact of Plessy v. Ferguson, Crenshaw (2001) stated, “Everybody knew the segregation laws were intended to signal and produce the inferiority of the Black race” (p. 11). This legacy of perceived inferiority remains in the politics of schools and schooling efforts to create equity. Therefore, people of color cannot rely on institutional reforms to decide their plight. Rather, Bell (2004) suggested that social alliances and moves to reduce inequity require complex coalitions of people from numerous groups that have first worked within their racial groups to create points of agreement and goals. In consideration of these complexities, for critical race theorists, there is a moral obligation to continue in the struggle for reforming largely ineffective schools for the benefit of those communities, especially those of color, that are viewed by many school planners as “undeserving.”


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 4, 2011, p. 787-810
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15967, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:13:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Thandeka Chapman
    University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
    THANDEKA K. CHAPMAN is an associate professor of urban education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She has conducted research on policy implementation in desegregated schools, urban small-school reforms, teaching and learning in racially diverse classrooms, and evaluating social justice curricula. Her most recent publications are six edited volumes of the History of Multicultural Education, coedited with Carl A. Grant.
  • René Antrop-González
    University of Wisconsin Milwaukee
    E-mail Author
    RENÉ ANTROP-GONZÁLEZ is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction/second language education at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. His research interests include African American and Latina/o sociology of education, high-achieving urban youth of color, urban small-school reform, and qualitative inquiry. Some of his most recent publications have appeared in Curriculum Inquiry, Journal of Latinos and Education, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, and Religion and Education.
 
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