Minneapolis to Reduce Class Sizes

Parents and Teachers Win Major Campaign

By Bob Peterson

Minneapolis voters decided to significantly reduce class size in their schools with the passage of a major referendum last fall. By a 2 to 1 margin voters agreed to a 6.9% property tax increase in order to improve conditions in the schools. The six-year, $136 million tax levy, will provide money to reduce class size, retrain teachers, and add to early childhood programs.

The district plans to reduce class size from 29 to 19 in kindergarten to grade two, from 30 to 25 students in grades three to eight and from 33 to 26 students in grades nine to 12. Much of the money would pay for teachers and classrooms.

“We sold it as a community issue,” explained Liz Morque, a parent of 4th and 6th graders, and co-chair of the Better Schools Referendum Campaign. “We went to the broader community and said Minneapolis is a wonderful city but if we don’t keep our schools healthy, and our children successful, it will deteriorate.”

Minneapolis, with 41,483 students and 1,569 teachers in its public school system, is expected to hired 360 additional teachers this coming September. Fifty-two per cent of the students are of color including 32% African-Americans, 10% Asians, 8% American Indians, and 2% Hispanics.

The campaign started last July when parents, community groups and teachers came together to form the Better Schools Referendum Campaign. With only 17% of the voters having school aged children, the organizers knew they had their work cut out for them. “We went to every organization and event you can imagine,” explained Morque. “People from our speakers bureau went to senior organizations, church groups, neighborhood organizations and labor unions.” Virtually all community based organizations endorsed the referendum including the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Farm Labor Party and the Independent Republican Party, the Central Labor Council and the entire city legislative delegation.

Morque said her committee told people the truth. “We said we want to raise your taxes and here’s why.” Since the funding provisions in the referendum are for only six years, the organizers promised the voters that if improvements didn’t come in that amount of time the voters could turn it down when the issue came up again.

Another parent active in the campaign told RethinkingSchools, “Even people without kids could understand that smaller classes would mean more teachers would have more time with each kid. It was a fairly simple message.”

Opposed by Chamber of Commerce

Opposition came from the Chamber of Commerce and the MinneapolisStar Tribune, the main daily in Minneapolis. The Chamber of Commerce argued that “systematic restructuring” was needed and not more money. Business and industry pay about 58% of the school tax in Minneapolis. The opposition seemed to have backfired. “It’s the underdog mentality,” said School Board Member Judy Farmer. “When forces like the newspaper and the Chamber of Commerce are not supporting you, it brings out a gut-level reaction that mobilized people like nothing else can.”

Morque noted that “When people found out that lots of people in the Chamber of Commerce don’t even live in the city, but in the suburbs, they were really furious.”

Reformers in Minneapolis see smaller class sizes as a necessary, but not sufficient requirement for educational reform. That’s why part of the money is going into staff development. Gilbert Valdez, manager of instructional design for the Minnesota Department of Education stated, “It can’t be class size alone; there has to be staff development.” A lot of teachers were taught techniques that their professors knew when school populations were very homogeneous. As Valdez told the StarTribune,“That’s not the case today.”

Staff development will be school-based and stress among other things peer coaching and collaboration, teacher support groups, and the use of multiple teaching strategies.

A Substantial Difference in Student Achievement

Minneapolis Superintendent Robert Ferrera told the Star Tribune that he “totally, unequivocally” believes in the value of smaller class sizes. “It makes a substantial difference in performance and achievement when you have a system as diverse as ours.”“If you are concerned about changing behavior patterns in schools, you need time to deal with the young as individual people…” He asked rhetorically,“When teachers have the opportunity to have contact with parents, does attendance improve, does homework improve, does behavior improve?”

Money from the referendum also will be spent to expand early education for children. One program is called High Five, for kids who turn five between September and December. There will be efforts to collaborate with all other private and non-profit agencies that provide early childhood education.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers supported the campaign financially and by signing a pledge that they would not go after the money for pay raises. Some teachers initially opposed the raises because specialists (art, music, gym teachers) will still have large class sizes.

The massive nature of the pro-referendum campaign was indicated by the fact that every registered voter in Minneapolis was called at least once and many a second time. Co-chair person Morque explained, “There was a huge phone bank. Eighty to 100 people called each night during parts of October and early November. Every registered voter in Minneapolis was called. Those who said they supported the referendum were sent a thank you post card and called again right before the election. Those who said they didn’t support the referendum were crossed off the list. And those who were unsure were sent information and then called again before the election.”

300 Classrooms Need to be Rented

The School System now faces the task of finding new teachers and the space for the classrooms. It is estimated that about 300 more classrooms will have to be found by next September. Schools have been instructed to try to find usable space. If it means an art room is taken up — and art class becomes “art on a cart”— the school will get an extra $4000, the average cost of renting one classroom commercially.

According to Charlayne Myers who is an active parent at Barton Open School and works in the Evaluation and Testing Department of the Minneapolis district, “Schools are out looking for space. We found four classrooms in the basement of a church three blocks away. We’ll be able to have a whole vertical block of classes there (1st – 4th grade).” She added that her children’s school still needs to work out some of the details about lunch and use of the other school facilities, but “that teachers and parents are excited about the smaller class sizes.”

During the debate on this issue the Star Tribune pointed out that in a survey a couple of years ago a national Gallup Poll found that 75 percent of those questioned favored cutting class sizes in early grades, and almost seven out of 10 were willing to pay higher taxes to do it. While economic conditions in Minneapolis are better than in many other urban centers, the process of building community alliances to address this vital need might be a lesson that can be learned by all. Perhaps other communities can learn from the Minneapolis example.

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney School in Milwaukee.