Class Size Crisis Deepens

Long Term Solutions Evade Political Leaders

By Bob Peterson

Collin Munch, a first-grade teacher at Story School on Milwaukee’s near west side, was lucky on the first day of school. Not all of the 42 students assigned to her class showed up.

Unfortunately, 36 students did. Of those, seven were classified as learning disabled and one as emotionally disabled. Nearly half of the class were recent immigrants and had limited English skills. There was a teacher of the learning disabled assigned to Munch’s class, but only for half a day.

“It was constant crowd control,” Munch said of her class at Story. “It was just awful.”

“It took a lot out of me,” she added. “It stole that enthusiasm you start the new school year with.”

Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Robert Peterkin was aware of the problem; he visited Munch’s classroom the second day of school. But Munch said that MPS officials kept telling teachers at Story, “You’re not the only school in this situation.”

Finally at the end of the third week, efforts were made to alleviate Munch’s problem.

Her class was reduced to 26, although it still included the eight children needing special help. The number also exceeded the School Board’s policy that there be only 25 students per teacher in the first grade.

The “solution” at Story also included turning the teachers’ lounge into a combination first-second grade classroom, and using storage closets for non-classroom teachers such as reading specialists.

Munch had an understandable reaction to the problems at Story. “I was ready to quit,” she said. “We wasted the first three weeks of school.”

Although the incident at Story School is extreme, it underscores that overcrowding in Milwaukee public schools has reached a crisis point. Children are literally being taught in storage closets.

While the roots of the problem are complex, the crisis that has surfaced in the 1990-1991 school year includes two fundamental realities:

  • A decade of inadequate planning by MPS officials.
  • The continued reluctance by city and state officials, including Mayor John Norquist and Governor Tommy Thompson to spend money on building new public schools in Milwaukee.

This article deals with the problem of overcrowding and class size in the context of existing structures of school financing.

It does not address the need to increase state and federal aid for schools and to reorder our national priorities away from military spending and toward social programs.

On the local level, it is unlikely that Norquist and other top city officials will abandon their belief that fiscal conservatism is more important than quality public education. In addition, the mayor’s overall support for public education is questionable, since he has touted school voucher programs as the key solution to the crisis in public education.

It is also unclear whether MPS Central Office officials will show the leadership necessary to challenge city officials and to build public support for new schools and smaller class sizes.

Their ability to show such leadership is all the more questionable because of the recently announced resignation of Dr. Peterkin. This means that MPS administration and School Board energies will focus on naming a new superintendent and on ensuring a smooth transition, rather than on tackling problems such as class size.

Teachers, for their part, are not allowed to bargain for smaller class sizes. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld a ruling of the Wisconsin Commission on Employee Relations that designated class size as a “permissive,” i.e. non-mandatory subject of bargaining. This was done on the grounds that the issue involves basic educational policy, not working conditions.

Many people involved in school issues believe that the only viable solution in the long run is for parents and community activists to become involved and to demand smaller class sizes. Only this will guarantee that the issue will not become a pawn in larger political maneuverings.

Community and parental support for lower class sizes is also essential because by law a referendum is needed to approve the borrowing of most monies for school construction in Milwaukee.

“Ultimately, it will come down to a referendum,” Peterkin said of the controversy over school construction at a meeting with parent and teacher representatives from the Community Advisory Committee of Service Delivery Area IV in November. “We will need the community to understand that their interest lies with that of our children.”

The Immediate Crisis

Th ory reflects problems throughout MPS this fall. By the end of November, enrollment was at least 1,000 more than expected and new students were entering at an unprecedented rate, according to MPS figures.

As a result, more teachers and students than ever before are working in over crowded conditions. Some started off the year without basic supplies such as books and desks. In a few elementary schools on the near south side, according to one principal, students were turned away from already filled schools. They waited at home for a couple of weeks until they were assigned to a school.

At Muir Middle School and Maple Tree School on the northwest side, the class size problems were so overwhelming that the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association filed grievances, charging that the class sizes went beyond the maximum allowed. At Muir, for example, the MTEA noted that “there are 91 regular classes with enrollments of between 30 and 35 students” and “50 classes with enrollments of over 35 students.” At Maple Tree, there were 26 children in the three first grades, 30 students each in the four third and fourth grade classes and 34 students in the sixth grade class.

The administration responded to the increased enrollment on September 19th by reissuing a set of class size maximums — a 10% increase over the previously published authorized staffing levels for the school year. (The official “staffing level” is the ratio between students and teachers used to determine the number of teachers assigned to any given school.) Under the newly published guidelines the maximum for first grade was 27, second through 4th grade was 30, and, for 5th grade in city wide specialty schools 33.

In addition, the administration instituted a different reporting procedure which requires that every Thursday principals separately list each classroom and the “number of available seats in class” — based not on the staffing ratios issued for the year. Apparently this new procedure was to deal with some principals who were not accurately reporting class sizes in hopes of keeping classes in their schools small.

The 19 P-5 schools in MPS — schools which are part of a special state funded program to help improve academic achievement — are exempted from the class size maximum guidelines because state law mandates that their classes have no more than 25 students. Nevertheless, because of the current crisis, some P-5 classrooms have more than 25 children, thus violating state law.

For its part, the Milwaukee School Board hired 12 additional para-professionals and six floating teachers at the end of October to work in the 17 schools hardest hit by overcrowding. This action had a negligible effect on the problem. For example, Longfellow elementary school received one para-professional as part of this plan but their class sizes remain high: 27 in the first grades, 32 in the second grade, 30 in the 4th/5th split.

In defense of the School Board’s token response, Deborah McGriff, Deputy Superintendent of Schools, told Rethinking Schools in October : “We are doing all that we can within the budget limitations that are imposed upon us.”

The Community Advisory Committee for Service Delivery Area IV has been the most outspoken on this issue. At its Oct. 3 meeting it passed a resolution calling on the School Board and MPS administration to reduce class size “even if it requires the renting of additional property and the hiring of more teachers.”

The resolution also asked the School Board to form an “emergency committee composed of parents, teachers, building principals, and community organization representatives to put forth recommendations on buildings and class size.”

As Josef Stagg, president of the CAC and parent of a student at Hartford Avenue School, said: “We believe parents and the community must begin to involve themselves in this crucial educational issue.”

Importance of Small Classes

Ask any teacher about the important ingredients of a quality education and they will be sure to mention small class sizes.

Indeed lack of individual attention caused by crowded classes is one of the main reasons parents abandon public schools for private schools.

Studies have also repeatedly shown the importance of small classes. And in separate surveys in 1989, the Public Policy Forum, a non-profit research group in Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee teachers union found that class size was the number one concern of teachers.

A number of local commissions on education have called for reducing class size as one of the ways to help improve education in the public schools.

In an October 1985 report, the Study Commission on the Quality of Education in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Public Schools, a group set up by business and political leaders, called for reducing elementary class sizes. For instance, they recommended a maximum of 20 in classes for four-year-olds through second graders.

The Marshall Plan Task Force, a commission of legislative, business, community and education leaders, recommended in November 1988 that average class sizes be reduced citywide with goals of 18 in kindergarten through third grade; 20 from fourth to eighth grade; and 25 in high school.

And in recent years, School Board members have voiced their support for smaller class sizes. According to Mary Bills, the School Board’s intention was to have class size at 1st grade limited to 25 children and then each succeeding year have this class size limit include one additional grade.

Yet class sizes are increasing, not decreasing. Why?

Roots of the Problem Run Deep

The roots of the current crisis are multi-faceted.

One explanation lies in the expanding roles that schools play in society. Many schools now routinely provide early education programs for 3-and 4-year-old students, and all-day kindergarten for 5-year-old students. There is also increasing demand for facilities such as computer labs, and for special programs such as art and music. Space needs for support staff such as social workers, speech pathologists and psychologists have also increased.

At the same time, an increasing number of students need special help. And these students, whether they be categorized as “at risk,” “learning disabled” or “emotionally troubled,” often require — by state guidelines — smaller classes.

Further, the number of these students is sure to skyrocket. Reports have consistently shown that children bear the brunt of the negative effects of the dramatic redistribution of wealth to the rich that has taken place in the last decade in this country.

The problem of overcrowding also has been exacerbated by changing enrollment patterns in Milwaukee.

Enrollment in MPS peaked in 1970, with a total of 133,606 children. As enrollment began to decline — to reach a low in the 1981-82 school year of 87,342 — MPS officials sold off approximately 20 schools.

As enrollment started to increase again in the 1980s, school officials realized they needed a more coherent building plan. One difficulty, however, is that MPS long-range enrollment projections — based on one-year, three-year and five-year predictions — have been notoriously inaccurate.

For the last 10 years, all the predictions have been low, anywhere from a couple of percentage points to 15% off. In October 1981, for example, MPS officials projected there would be 82,926 students enrolled in the 1987-88 school year. The actual figure turned out to be 12,500 students higher, or 95,428. One year predictions tend to be better. The current enrollment in MPS is approximately 99,000 (including 6,000 Chapter 220 students who attend suburban schools).

All urban areas face problems created by the changing nature of schooling and shifting enrollment patterns. Yet not all have a crisis in class size and overcrowded facilities. Two specific factors have coalesced in Milwaukee to allow the crisis to develop.

On the one hand, MPS administrators have failed to develop an effective long-range building plan to guide short-term decisions. MPS officials have also been criticized by the city and business officials for having a strict “brick and mortar” approach, which fails to consider renovating non-school sites and using smaller alternative sites. A recent shake up of personnel in the affected departments in Central Office is considered by many an indication of a new flexibility on the part of MPS. Nonetheless, there remains no long term building plan for MPS, or a Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan that is common for local levels of government.

On the other hand, officials from the City of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin have been reluctant to spend money to replace old buildings and build new facilities to accommodate new programs and increasing enrollment. City officials are involved in school construction decisions because the city actually owns the school buildings, and because borrowing money to build new schools is done through the city government and debt repayment shows up in the city budget.

On the state level, the administration of Gov. Tommy Thompson has been too busy pushing the school “choice” program — under which about 350 low-income Milwaukee children attend private, non-sectarian schools at state expense — to pay much attention to the problem of large classes for tens of thousands of MPS students.

Besides the previously mentioned P-5 program which affects on 18% of elementary schools in Milwaukee, the only real class size initiative in the last legislative term was sponsored by former Assembly Speaker and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Tom Loftus. Under legislation proposed in the last session, $165 million would have been allocated over a four year period to lower class sizes in kindergarten and 1st grade to 15 students and in second and third grade to 18. The bill never made it out of committee.

While the P-5 legislation has been a positive development, it also had the unfortunate result of causing many split classes (two grades together) in the P-5 schools and forcing higher class sizes in non-P-5 schools. Bilingual schools have been especially affected. Half of the MPS schools with bilingual programs are in the P-5 program, thus limiting available space for children with bilingual education needs. As a result all bilingual 1st grades in non P-5 schools have at least 27 students and all 2nd grades have 30.

Politics and Overcrowded Classes

The current crisis is the product of years of indecision, procrastination, and haggling between MPS and the city government.

Task Forces and commissions have produced studies and reports, but little effective action. Typically these reports — including those issued by different commissions in 1980, 1986 and 1988 — recommended extensive building plans to meet MPS’s growing building needs. As Don Deeder, an MTEA staff person explains, “When a commission would come out with recommendations stating that we needed lots more classroom space and an aggressive building program, it would be decided that instead of following the recommendations, a new commission should be established to see if such an ambitious proposal was really justified.”

In the absence of effective long range planning, MPS continues to stumble forward with short range plans.

The most recent set of recommendations in the fall of 1988 came from the Building Sites Task Force established by the School Board. In its own words, it was a “very conservative” plan that called for building two elementary schools and two middle schools, renovating one elementary school and reopening another, and adding additions on to four other elementary schools.

The task force admitted that its proposal would not meet expected enrollment growth, let alone address the question of providing space for new programs or for smaller class sizes.

Yet Norquist balked at even this modest proposal.

Norquist, who has made holding the line on property taxes the centerpiece of his administration’s policies, chastised the schools for their profligate spending plans. In particular, he said he was “unable to support the…costly middle school component.”

According to media reports, he told MPS that it should consider such steps as opening classrooms in office buildings, constructing schools that could later be transformed into housing, or building schools in conjunction with community centers.

While the school district estimated their construction plan would cost $47 million, a city analysis said its actual cost would be closer to $80 million.

Mayor Norquist based his opposition to the proposal on its cost. But his overall commitment to public education is under growing scrutiny. In a major speech just a few weeks ago, Norquist said he doubted the current public school system could be reformed. He advocated that it be replaced with a voucher or choice system allowing parents to enroll in any public or private, non-sectarian school. Norquist said the problem was not class sizes or teachers’ salaries or lack of school supplies, but “the whole system.”

On the 1988 building proposal, city and school officials ultimately compromised. Norquist agreed to support the building plan if MPS dropped its plan to build one of the two middle schools.

During the next two years, MPS plans to build a new Elm School on the city’s near north side, a double elementary school at 27th and Lloyd, and a middle school.

It has also also decided to finance some new construction at three sites through using operating funds instead of construction funds and to seek purchase of St. Alberts school and the old Wausau Insurance building. Although this will help alleviate overcrowding, the method of financing will take away needed funds from the operating budget. One top MPS administrator told Rethinking Schools that because the city has not been willing to come up with additional funds, the “creative financing” which is now being used to renovate some buildings, such as the Schlitz Park, will take about $3 to $5 million dollars out of the general budget. “Next spring we will have that much less to hire teachers and buy resources,” the official said.

Where to Now?

One issue that was left unresolved in the city/school district compromise was how to find money to hire a consultant to review alternatives to building schools, such as opening classrooms in office buildings.

Norquist had reportedly offered to help MPS find the money, but the issue was left in limbo.

Eventually, the Greater Milwaukee Education Trust — a group set up to coordinate the business community’s input in school improvement — established a committee to move the issue forward. At this point, the School Board has agreed to fund $130,000 needed for the study. The city has offered $30,000. The study was originally projected to cost $400,000, but since no other monies have been found, its scope has been scaled down.

Ann Brooker, Director of Budget and Management for the City of Milwaukee, expressed optimism about the new spirit of cooperation and flexibility between the city and the school district. She pointed out that for a long term plan to be successful it needs two essential ingredients. “We need to know the status of all physical plants and available space in the city, and there also needs to be agreement on a general educational program for Milwaukee.” She said that the “extent to which Milwaukee is committed to early childhood education and smaller class sizes directly impacts on a future building program.”

Until now, the administration and school board have not clearly delineated such long range educational goals. The 5 Year Education Improvement Plan submitted by Dr. Peterkin and the board of school directors to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction made no mention of class size limits.

John Peterburs, Secretary-Business Manager of MPS, told Rethinking Schools that “We could come up with a 5 or 10 year capital improvement plan, but what is needed is the educational leadership to outline the options of what we want schools to look like in the 21st Century. Do we want one of four schools to have extended child care? What class sizes do we need?”

Peterburs added that “It will be difficult to come up with such a plan but we will never get these hard questions answered if we don’t start now.”

Such a long range ducational plan should obviously be developed through extensive discussions with parents, teachers and community members. In the end, the issue is likely to come before the voters, who must approve borrowing for school construction. Estimates on the size of a likely bond referendum range from $200 to $300 million in school construction just to meet enrollment increases.

To resolve this growing crisis, several things need to be done. On a short term basis, the school board should mandate caps on class size, so that administrative use of “average” class size or staffing ratios doesn’t leave some classes unmanageably large just because others are small. On a long-term basis, the community and the school system must decide on educational priorities i.e. if we, as a community, want smaller classes sizes, art and music rooms in all schools, and early childhood education, then we should demand the space to provide that. Finally to make progress political leadership is needed by the superintendent, school board and mayor.

As one 5th grade teacher with 34 students in her classroom told Rethinking Schools, “I know I wouldn’t want my kid in a classroom with so many children. We need to work with parents so that they understand the dreadful impact this crisis is having on our children. Together, perhaps, something can be done.”

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney Street School and is a member of the Community Advisory Committee of Service Delivery Area IV.