How Society Short-Changes Young Children

Questioning the Practice of making Elementary Schools Do With Less

By Bob Peterson

No matter how you add up the figures, younger students get less.

At a teachers’ union meeting last spring, something struck me as out of kilter. The union delegates from Milwaukee schools were discussing a memorandum of understanding to allow a high school a variance from the teachers’ contract. The proposal was to permit block scheduling and included a provision that any teacher who taught three 90-minute classes would be assured one 90-minute planning period each day.

As I walked to the microphone I did some quick mental math and figured that 90 minutes is just a little less than the time that I — as a fifth grade teacher — get in planning per week. I spoke in favor of the proposal and contract flexibility, but I added that it was time that union leadership and the administration figure out how elementary teachers, who usually have to prepare for many more subjects than do high school teachers, can have more planning time.

Later, as I talked to teachers about the issue, it became apparent that the disparity in planning time between elementary and high school teachers is just one example of disparities in resources based on grade level, disparities ranging from per-pupil expenditures to facilities. The higher one goes up the educational ladder, the more resources are available.

This inequality is most apparent when one compares the two ends of the educational system. Even though most educators acknowledge the importance of the first five years of a child’s life, our society has deemed that period of a child’s educational development least deserving of public expenditures. Daycare workers are lucky to get little more than minimum wage, daycare centers are often buried in church basements, and funding for early childhood education is sparse compared to other educational expenditures. At the other end of the educational ladder, however, university educators are better paid, standards for employment are more rigorous, and per-pupil expenditures are much greater. (See Chart A, page 21.)

According to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 1992 average public education expenditures per student in the U.S. were $5,600 for primary school students, $6,470 for secondary students, and $11,880 for higher education students. (See Chart B.)

This dramatic disparity does not affect all children equally: the longer a child attends school, the more public resources he or she may benefit from. Furthermore, because public expenditures per student in four-year colleges greatly exceed those for elementary school pupils, students who stay in school longer get an increasingly large annual public subsidy.

Since those most likely to stay in school longer are more likely to be affluent and white, the inequality built into the “educational ladder” reinforces the class and racial inequalities in our society.


These inequalities within the educational system as a whole exist within K-12 school systems as well. Exact data is difficult to obtain because in most districts overhead expenses (such as transportation, maintenance, textbooks, etc.) are not disaggregated by school levels and not all funds (special project funds, school-generated activity funds, etc.) are included in published figures. Milwaukee is one of the few school districts that

has attempted to disaggregate this data. Official figures show that in the 1995-96 school year the average per-pupil expenditure for high school students was $600 more, and for middle school students

$800 more, than for elementary students. Even after two years of MPS attempts to “boost funding for elementary schools” proposed budget figures for fiscal year 1998 show that average base allocations per-pupil for elementary schools trail those for high schools by $606 and middle schools by $672.

Such financial differentials obviously affect staffing and programming. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1993 the pupil/teacher ratio for elementary schools was 18.9/ 1, while for secondary schools it was 15.2/1. This data is not an indication of class size, which can vary widely even within schools, but rather the ratio of the total number of teachers to students.

Another important issue is planning and preparation time. Data compiled by the research department of the National Education Association for 1991 show that middle and high school teachers have on the average 70% more planning time than their elementary counterparts.

Most elementary schools are structured around self-contained classrooms with

one teacher responsible for teaching a class of 25 or 30 students between 5 1/2 and 6 hours a day. That teacher’s planning time comes when the students are taught by specialists in art, music, or physical education — whether in their usual classroom or in special areas of the school. Such specialist classes normally last from 30 to 45 minutes each and occur once a week in many schools, twice a week in some.

The typical high school day, by contrast, has eight periods, each about 50 minutes long. A teacher teaches five classes and has one period for planning, one for lunch, and one for another school responsibility such as hallway duty or supervising a study hall. According to data from the NEA research department, high school teachers are more likely to have their lunch periods “duty-free” than their elementary counterparts.

After the issue of planning time came up at last spring’s union meeting, I kept track of my planning time for the rest of the year. For only two of the ten weeks that remained did I get my full planning time of 110 minutes a week; during each of the other eight weeks something interfered and I lost one or two of my preparation periods. Sometimes there were special district activities that pulled a specialist teacher out of our school; on

other occasions a specialist was absent and no sub was available. In contrast, when a substitute isn’t assigned at middle or high schools, a regular teacher who does not have a class during that period can sub and receive extra pay. Most elementary schools don’t have that luxury because teachers are scheduled to be with students all the time.

Secondary teachers are aided by more support staff than are elementary teachers. A national 1991 survey by the NEA research department showed that on the average high schools have 50% more (non-classroom) professional personnel in their schools than elementary schools have.

In Milwaukee, a typical high school has a principal, a phalanx of assistant principals, guidance counselors, and social workers. An elementary school typically has a principal, perhaps an assistant principal if it is large, and a part-time counselor or social worker. For example, in the 1995-96 school year, Milwaukee’s Custer High School had a per-pupil expenditure of $3,698, a student population of 1,293, and the services of a principal, five assistant principals, and four guidance counselors. Lee Elementary School, with 615 students and a per-pupil expenditure of $2,753, had a principal, one assistant principal, and a half-time guidance counselor. Such disparities in school-level professional staff have a profound impact on how much support can be provided classroom teachers.


Inequalities are often built into collective bargaining agreements. In Milwaukee, for example, a contract provision known as “Schedule E” provides for additional payment of middle and high school teachers for extra-curricular functions such as forensics, debate, chess, intramural activities, drill team, and plays and musicals. No such provision exists in the contract for elementary teachers, even though many of us consistently put in long hours on special student projects, clubs, and activities. The Milwaukee contract also includes provisions for payment of teachers for coaching interscholastic sports in secondary schools. No such provision is provided for elementary sports activities. Thus, the interscholastic basketball program for elementary schools, which includes over 71 schools, is funded through the Milwaukee Public Schools Community Recreation Department, which in the 1995-96 school year paid coaches a meager $5.10 per hour.


While few people would dispute the fact that relatively more resources are available as one ascends the educational ladder, many argue this disparity is justified because of specific resource needs of the higher grades. Some argue that high schools need more staff because of the variety of courses that they offer and the specialized training such courses require. Early childhood education proponents counter that the younger the child the more adult supervision and assistance is needed. In addition, the quality of those non-academic courses that are available to elementary students is compromised because music, drama, art, and physical education teachers either don’t exist at that level or may have to cope with class loads of from 500 to 900 children.

Some secondary school educators also argue that special equipment for laboratories, more expensive textbooks, and specialized classes require a greater expenditure of resources. I am not convinced. Quality early childhood instructional equipment and materials can be equally expensive, whether it’s math manipulatives, children’s literature, furniture, or computer hardware.

As an upper-elementary teacher I would favor significantly more money being targeted for pre-kindergarten through third grade. If this were done, class sizes at these levels could be dramatically reduced and social services to families qualitatively improved. Such an increase in resources would likely mean that by the time children reach the upper grades many more of them would be academically successful.

Assuming the Milwaukee differential— $600 to $800 — in per-pupil expenditure between elementary and secondary schools, it’s not hard to see the difference raising elementary spending to the level enjoyed by secondary schools would make. In an elementary school of 500 students, for example, the school budget would increase by somewhere between

$300,000 and $400,000. Such monies could be used in a variety of ways to improve academic achievement: class size reduction; extra reading teachers; additional arts and physical education teachers (who would provide both a richer curriculum and more planning time for classroom teachers); support staff, such as guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers.


The inequality of resources between elementary and secondary schools goes back in American educational history. Public high schools were developed in the 19th century as elite institutions, and many of their features — ranging from their palatial architecture to their departmentalized structures to their higher pay scales — were created to mimic a privileged college setting. Even as their role changed and students began attending in mass and new features such as tracking were institutionalized, they still gobbled up far more educational resources than were distributed to elementary schools.

Gender discrimination played a large role in promoting the resource disparity between elementary and secondary schools. Educational historian David Tyack points out in his book The One Best System that after the Civil War the percentage of women teachers in the United States increased dramatically (59% in 1870 to 86% in 1920). In large cities female teachers outnumbered male teachers ten to one. Even more importantly, by 1905 only 2% of teachers in elementary schools were men, but 38% of the elementary school principals were men. In high schools, 38% of the teachers and 94% of the principals were men.

Pay inequities existed among teachers for reasons of both gender and grade level. For example, according to an NEA study of 467 cities in 1905, even those female teachers whose jobs were identical to those of their male counterparts received from one-third to one-half the men’s pay.

The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the general increase in women’s political activity, and organization of teachers into associations, including all-women teacher associations, helped to challenge such discriminatory practices. The pay differentials based solely on gender were the first target of many equal rights advocates, and state legislatures began passing equal pay laws for teachers in the 1920s.

However, a more subtle form of gender discrimination persisted until the 1940s. Elementary teachers received lower salaries than high school teachers, and teachers of some subjects less than teachers of others. Since the overwhelming majority of teachers in the elementary schools were women, while men were concentrated in the high schools, the wage differentials between elementary and secondary schools were a form of sex discrimination.

Because the education of younger children, including elementary-aged children, has since the Civil War been perceived as “women’s work,” and because many sections of our society have placed a relatively low value on such work, it’s not surprising that this inequitable distribution of resources should have persisted for so long.

It’s noteworthy that some of the most bitter disputes in the early history of teacher unionism were between women elementary teachers like Margaret Haley, who led the Chicago Teachers’ Federation, and their male high school counterparts. Several issues divided the two different groups of teachers, but ultimately the male high school teachers dominated the American Federation of Labor. Historian Marjorie Murphy, in her book Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA 1900-1980, notes that after these initial conflicts “there was little growth in AFT locals among elementary teachers throughout most of the first thirty years of the union’s history.”

While I know of no study of this topic, anecdotal evidence suggests that males with high school teaching experience continue to play the dominant role in the leadership of many local, state, and national teacher unions. They also appear to be disproportionately represented among superintendents and other central office administrative leaders. Since it is these two groups — district administrators and local union officials — who negotiate labor contracts, it’s not surprising that issues of concern to elementary teachers, such as guaranteed planning time and pay for elementary extra-curricular activities, have been ignored in many school districts.


These disparities and the inadequacies of funding for the education of the youngest members of our society seem all but forgotten by policy makers when they criticize our schools or set goals for our students. Whether it’s President Clinton proclaiming all 8-year-olds will read on grade level, or the Milwaukee School Board dictating that all third graders must score above level on the state’s reading test, rarely does one hear about putting enough resources into the education of young children to support the implementation of such goals. For example, about 70% of Clinton’s proposed increases in the education budget are for post-secondary education programs. If people are serious about students attaining “higher standards,” then policy-makers should also get serious about turning their funding priorities for the educational ladder upside down.

On the federal and state level this could be achieved by vastly increasing public expenditures for “the front end of life” — to use Jesse Jackson’s oft-quoted phrase. In any sane society as rich as ours, all children up to the age of five would be guaranteed access to free health and dental care, adequate nutrition, decent housing, free childcare, and substantially smaller class sizes in early childhood and primary classrooms.

Any additional funding for “the lower end” of the educational ladder should be accompanied by addressing the “savage inequalities” in how schools are funded generally, so that the per-pupil expenditures in poor rural and urban districts are at least as high as expenditures in more affluent suburban districts.

At the local school district level, there also needs to be a commitment to increasing expenditures for the education of young children. Most people acknowledge that if a child isn’t reading by third grade, that child’s chances of completing high school are greatly diminished. Let’s increase our investment in our children’s early education, so that they may have a chance to flourish academically, physically, and socially from the very start. If we do this, then we will greatly improve education on all levels — and our society as whole.

Bob Peterson ( is a 5th grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney and a Rethinking Schools editor