If you wait long enough, just about every debate will be repeated.
Sunday's Journal Sentinel was themed around "resegregation" on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education a story. The most interesting of several articles on the subject was a treatment of the increased lack of racial balance in MPS and the idea that this is sometime of "boomerang" effect of recent or sinister provenance.
In fact, the recognition that MPS would be unable to keep counting noses by their color was raised thirty years ago. As a rookie lawyer. I became involved in the "second generation" school desegregation litigation. It followed a rather contrived and result oriended decision by Judge John Reynolds holding that there had been intentional racial segregation by MPS that justified racial balancing in the city's schools.
Reynolds meant well - he was a creature of his age - but that decision destroyed, at least for awhile, the neighborhood school in Milwaukee and almost certainly hastened the exodus of the middle class from Milwaukee. You might condemn what followed as "racist" white flight but the eventual rejection of busing for racial balance by minority parents should call such a simplistic view into question. Because. among other things, the burden of busing fell more heavily on African Americans (at least, in part, to prevent white families from leaving the system), support dwindled among blacks as well.
In any event, the effort to racially balance Milwaukee schools quickly ran into a dearth of white students. In 1984, MPS realized that it would be unable to avoid predominantly minority schools unless it could move students across city lines. Thus it initiated litigation to create a metropolitan-wide busing plan. I was a member of the team defending 24 suburban school districts who were named as defendants.
The case was weak and, if you want to believe me, we beat the pants off of the district in court. (One of my earliest victories as a trial lawyer was getting MPS' expert to admit, under oath, that he had told his research assistants not to collect data that "went the wrong way." While this may have been the product of luck more than skill, it has rarely gotten better than that.) In any event, MPS caved, settling for an agreement by the suburban districts to expand their participation in the existing chapter 220 voluntary transfer program as long as they had space and as long as the state would pay them for doing so. (The unacknowledged fact was that many of these suburban districts saw transfers from the city as a source of revenue.)
In the end, the 220 program did not materially change the composition of city or suburban schools because there wasn't much demand for it. (Although, ironically, my son spent a semester as a 220 student at the Milwaukee High School for the Arts.) The idea that racial balance was an important element of improving educational outcomes had lost favor. In the meantime, MPS lost white students to the point that it has become almost impossible not to have what the article calls "intensely segregated" schools. This is not a new development. It was predicted as long as 30 years ago.
The thing that did not bring this about is school choice. It didn't exist in 1984 and is not a vehicle for white "flight." Choice students are overwhelmingly minority. The movement of white students out of MPS is largely due to the failure of the city to remain attractive to middle class parents or of MPS to remain a viable alternative for middle class families who remain in the city. There are many wonderful neighborhoods in Milwaukee in which relatively few of the kids go to public school.
This reflects a theme in Milwaukee politics. Urban "champions" in this city have too often thought that the answer to the city's problems is to get someone else to foot the bill or to coerce others to participate in their preferred solutions. It is to fight expressways that allow people to move freely between the city and the suburbs. It is to trap municipal workers within the city through residency requirements. It was once the desire to impose metropolitan busing on students and is now hostility to the ability of low income families to choose their children's schools. It is to "expand" the state base so that the city retains local control but avoids local responsibility.
While I agree that a fair amount of the angst about crime in Milwaukee is overblown, the fact remains that there are parts of the city - including some very attractive neighborhoods - in which the crime rate is just too high to attract middle class families and create communities that are as strong as they might otherwise be. Milwaukee will never attract and maintain families as long as MPS is viewed as a wasteland. Telling people that they are "wrong" or "racist" to be concerned about crime or poor schools is a fool's errand.
Making people offers they "can't refuse" or dressing up coercion as "regionalism" hasn't worked and never will. Milwaukee will not be a successful city unless people choose to work and attend school in the city. There may be an example of a city that accomplished that through high taxes, the politics of racial spoils and hostility toward business, but I am not aware of it.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.