State-Sponsored ‘New’ White Flight through Public School Choice and its Impact on Contemporary Urban Schools: A Case Study of Milwaukee’s Open Enrollment Program

Michael Bonds, Marie Gina Sandy



‘White flight’ has largely come to mean exit from or avoidance of racially mixed public schools in urban neighborhoods. But the ‘new’ white flight is complicated by the fact that more whites who are often more affluent remain or relocate to desirable urban areas that are close to jobs and attractive city amenities. This paper describes how white flight can now happen without housing relocation with support from state-wide and municipal school choice policies resulting in the further re-segregation of regional schools. Using the Milwaukee Public School system’s Open Enrollment program as a case study, the authors demonstrate that this seemingly politically neutral school choice program supports the new white flight, enabling the children of white families to attend – and subsidize – the region’s suburban schools with declining enrollment, while further undermining the financial base of urban public schools. This study confirms earlier research indicating white students comprise the majority of participants in Open Enrollment programs, but with more non-white students participating in the Milwaukee program in the last five years. Extensive qualitative analysis of historical documents served as the primary research method for this study. Implications for other regions are discussed.

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