Newhouse News Service
June 14, 1992
LA CROSSE, WIS. – Generally speaking, some folks say, not much happens in Lacrosse, Wis., the placid little patch of middle America between the Mississippi River and the lush green bluffs to its east.
“There’s nothing here. Just bored white people,” Susan Knight said.
Of course, there is the eccentric who refused to mow his lawn. And the woman who a few weeks back won a go-cart, a fondue set and $250 in cash on “The Price is Right.”
And then there is the uproar over the School Board’s plan to do something no other school system in the country does. In the fall, they plan to start busing elementary school pupils, not to achieve racial balance but to create a better mix of poor and affluent children.
The busing plan has roiled the city of 50,000 for seven months, dividing families and neighbors, Scout troops and golf foursomes.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends, I’ve lost a lot of patients,” Charles Miller said. Miller, a surgeon, also lost his seat on the School Board, where he had served many years as president.
By mid-summer, the people of La Crosse say they will have succeeded in recalling and replacing the School Board. Most of the system’s poor children – an even greater percentage of those coming from broken, dangerous and difficult homes – are white.
“I haven’t heard any racism,” said Doug Farmer, a local banker and councilman, who is part of the anti-busing recall slate.
But, Ken French, a School Board incumbent, said it is there, under the surface.
“People don’t want to admit it but there’s a lot of racism in this community,” said French, who believes many people in La Crosse view the busing plan as a way to integrate the Hmong.
In part that’s because in a town where poverty keeps a very low profile, poor whites, who have always been a part of the community, are especially invisible. With the arrival of the Hmong, Superintendent of Schools Richard Swantz said, “poverty became a little more obvious.”
Before the busing debate, according to assistant superintendent David Johnston, many people in town had no idea that one third of La Crosse schoolchildren are poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
“This was a surprise to our community,” Johnston said. “La Crosse is like most Midwestern communities. It sees itself as separate from the East and West coasts and things that happen in the big cities.”
What troubles educators in La Crosse is the concentration of poor children in a couple of schools. About 70 percent of pupils at Hamilton and Jefferson elementary schools qualify for free lunch, compared with 3 percent of the children at affluent State Road School.
“I see kids here eat twice as much on Friday and Monday because on Friday they know they’re not going to get as much food over the weekend, and when they come back Monday they’re hungry,” Hamilton Principal Jay Thurston said.
These are children who require more from their teachers and principals and counselors, Thurston said. “We could do a better job providing for these kids if we spread them out.”
Thurston also said it would help to spread out the success-oriented children of the middle class, who can serve as role models to their classmates, and to spread out their parents, who probably have the time, inclination and wherewithal to get involved in the schools. Hamilton has six parent volunteers. State Road has 100.
But that is a hard sell to make to middle-class parents when their children may be the ones bused.
There are few issues more explosive or emotional, Armor said, than telling middle-class parents they cannot choose, by the act of buying a home, which school their child will attend.
“There are five elementary schools within two miles of my home and my child is going to be bused to the 11th farthest school,” six miles away, said Dan Lange, an eye surgeon who turned his fury against the busing plan into a School Board candidacy.
Like some other busing opponents, Lange said he is willing to provide Hamilton and Jefferson with more money to reduce class size, provide tutoring or create all-day kindergartens if that’s what it takes to improve educational achievement.
But those supporting the busing plan said that misses the point. The mixing of rich and poor, of Hmong and white, they said, is vital to preparing children for life in America.
“It’s more than learning academics, it’s learning life, learning life by learning to relate to people from other backgrounds,” Jefferson Principal Harvey Witzenburg said.
And there are poor folks who find the notion that they should want their children to sit and play beside the scions of comfort bizarre.
“I don’t want my kids to be socioeconomically integrated. I don’t want them to associate with the upper class,” said Susan Knight, a single mother of four who moved her family from rural Iowa to La Crosse so they could get a good education in its schools. She moved into a house near Hamilton after visiting there and decided it was the right place for her son, Sable, 8.
“If we wanted to be integrated, we would go raise our income,” said Knight, who said all Sable is going to pick up in his new school is the materialism, condescension and contempt of middle-class kids who “know they’re being forced to go to school with poor kids.”
Some Hmong parents express similar concerns.
“I’d like my children to be in school with the children of rich people,” May Vang said. But, she said, “I worry they won’t make friends. They’ll say, ‘I can’t be their friend because their parent’s a doctor, or I can’t be their friend because I don’t have the same shoes they wear.”‘
Thai Vue of the Mutual Assistance Association said most Hmong, regardless of their qualms or the inconvenience, support the integration plan as one that will benefit their children academically and socially.
“I think it’s OK,” said Pa Ying Xiong, a father of four. “It will help the children.”
It remains to be seen whether a new School Board will have time to junk the busing plan before the start of the school year in September. If not, Witzenburg said, it quickly will win the community over as children become attached to their new schools.
“I think the kids will sell it,” he said.