April 17, 2008

Revisiting MPS Busing

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

With the Milwaukee School Board about to take up the budget for next year, I know that community leaders have expressed an interest in taking another look at the issue of busing Milwaukee’s children to schools outside their neighborhoods.

Although the number of school kids being bused across town has declined from about 73,000 at its peak to about 56,000 now, the cost of busing remains above $50 million and could rise.  I have two main questions:  What benefit are we getting for our kids, and, now with MPS’s obligation to improve schools under the No Child Left Behind law, could we better use some of that money to actually improve neighborhood schools?

MPS’s busing program began over 30 years ago with a court desegregation order.  Since then, tens of thousands of students have been bused across the city.  But since 88 percent of the city’s students now are children of color, is integration really occurring?  And last year, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that race cannot be considered when assigning students to schools. 

Detractors of busing would argue that it has created no long-lasting positive impact, and in fact has arguably produced a long list of negative consequences. 

They might say that when kids don’t go to a school in their own neighborhood, they don’t build neighborhood friendships and a community identity.  They might also suggest critical partnerships, between these student’s families, community and social service agencies, business and local governmental bodies are being under developed and utilized.

Proponents could certainly reference new found friendships, expanded racial tolerance, and overall increased cultural competency by teachers, students, families and communities of all backgrounds. Nor can you discount a parent’s role in these decisions.  

And those somewhere in the middle, certainly discuss the inherit challenges of missed school buses, truancy, minimized parental involvement, inability to participate in after school activities and long hours spent commuting.   

As we at the state level work to tighten our belts, review spending prioritites, and plug our current budget hole, I certainly understand the need and support for raising this issue. With recent news of potentially 214 teaching positions being cut due to budgetary constraints,  we must have frank conversations about how MPS budget dollars are spent.  So let’s put this issue on the table.  Could the money spent on busing students every year be better spent on perhaps reopening closed neighborhood schools and restoring programs?  Could it be spent on improving the quality of all our schools to meet federal requirements and improve student performance?  Would those dollars help raise the reading scores of 8th grade African-American students from the lowest in the nation?  We can’t get answers to these pressing questions, unless we ask.