Date of Award

August 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Amanda I. Seligman

Committee Members

Joe Austin, Glen Jeansonne, Robert Smith, Raji Swaminathan


Education, magnet schools, Milwaukee, racial integration, school choice, urban history


Americans cherish freedom and value local control of education. The issue of "school choice," a movement that supports publicly funded tuition vouchers for students who attend private schools, appeared on the public agenda in the 1980s and has remained a controversial topic into the twenty-first century. Milwaukee had one of the first and most expansive school choice programs in the United States. If one is to understand school choice, one must understand its origin in Milwaukee. Milwaukee moved through three eras of choice--the eras of "no choice," "forced choice," and "school choice." The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) followed a "comprehensive" model and a traditional neighborhood assignment pattern in the first era. Schools were racially segregated in that era. Lloyd Barbee led the protest movement and legal challenge to end segregation in the 1960s and 1970s, and Superintendent Lee McMurrin and the school board responded by creating a magnet school program that offered students more choices than any other district in the United States. Magnet schools were supposed to racially integrate students and provide them with a variety of quality educational options. But the program was difficult to implement and not well received by many parents, either African American or white. Many families wanted to keep their children in neighborhood schools, but if not enough students volunteered to attend an integrated school, then some had to be "forced" to choose one in the second era of school choice. And while many of the magnet schools were excellent, they did not improve education in Milwaukee as a whole. Civic and community leaders tried to remedy low academic achievement in the 1990s by introducing more forms of choice, including charter schools, vouchers to private schools, open enrollment in suburban districts, and neighborhood schools and small schools within MPS. Despite all these choices, education has not improved in Milwaukee. Nonetheless, Milwaukee parents and students have a level of choice, for good or for bad, that is not available in any other school district in the United States. These choices would not be possible if it were not for Milwaukee's unique urban history.