Will We Build the Schools That Our Children Need?

Key Decisions Loom in Milwaukee

Milwaukee in the year 2002. Scenario #1: Visitors frequent the city to learn about the “Milwaukee Miracle.” Some 48 new and renovated school-community centers dot the once gang-infested neighborhoods on the near north and near south sides. Racial tensions have diminished from an all-time high a decade earlier. The school community centers, completely different from the schools of the 1980s, were an important factor. The schools open at six a.m. for parents to drop their children off on the way to work. Class sizes are small, teachers and students have strong one-to-one relationships, and teachers are implementing a nationally recognized K-12 curriculum. Many children don’t leave after school, but participate in recreational and educational activities, some of which are led by high school youth. Teenagers and adults alike take part in athletic leagues, literacy and enrichment classes, and cultural activities well into the night. Public and private social agencies coordinate their services to the surrounding neighborhood from offices in the schools. These new centers, along with federally-funded urban jobs and housing programs, have made Milwaukee’s optimistic about their future.

Milwaukee in the year 2002. Scenario #2: Despite valiant efforts by teachers and administrators and the construction of a handful of new schools, public education has continued a decade of decline. Ever since the Milwaukee community rejected a referendum to build a network of school-community centers, gang problems have escalated, schools have become even more over-crowded, and student achievement has plummeted. Hundreds of the best teachers have quit to work in the suburbs. The inequity between suburban and city schools is so great that families able to move to the suburbs have done so. Crime continues to escalate and many city neighborhoods resemble war zones.

While the two scenarios outlined above might be overstated, either one is possible. And 1992 might be the decisive year in which the Milwaukee community chooses which one to follow.

City voters will likely face a referendum in 1992 that will help shape Milwaukee’s school system for the 21st century.

As part of a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) Facilities Plan, administrators will recommend to the School Board proposals on construction, renovation, and replacement of school facilities. The School Board, in turn, will decide when and how to put the issue before voters. Class size, equity, student achievement, taxes, and the priority this community gives to its children will be key components of discussions.

This is not the first MPS building plan. One difference, however, is that when Superintendent Howard Fuller established the Facilities Master Plan Steering Committee in September 1991, he called for the committee to base its recommendations not just on the number of students who will come into MPS schools in the future, but on educational needs such as class size and curricular goals.

The Facilities Committee is made up of principals, teachers, and central office administrators. Working with consultants from the Barton Marlow Company, it issued draft standards to the administration and School Board in October and November. A final draft will be issued by Barton Marlow Consultants in December.

Schools for the future

The committee recognized that schools built today will serve our children’s grandchildren and must be constructed as part of a vision of what we want our schools to look like in the next century. The committee envisioned schools radically different from current ones: they would be center points of neighborhood life, open 14-16 hours, seven days a week, all year long. They would serve not only children and adolescents, but also parents and other adults. Some might even deliver social services on a decentralized basis, coordinated by private and public agencies.

The two key educational standards behind the recommendations are equity and academic achievement. Drawing on common sense and new class size research from Tennessee, the Facilities Committee recommended significantly smaller class sizes and smaller schools in order to improve academic achievement. It also recommended that as new schools are built and old ones remodeled, they include rooms for art, music, performances, computer labs, and full size libraries—facilities common in schools in more affluent districts. They recommended that schools be built so they can also serve as community centers.

The second draft of the standards also stressed the importance of integrating exceptional education students in regular education programs; increased individual contact between teachers and students; smaller, more manageable schools; and increased parental involvement.

Smaller classes and schools with fewer students are needed to “facilitate more authentic assessment and learner based instruction” as well as “improved accountability at the classroom and school level,” the report said. Under the plan the preferred capacity for an elementary school would be approximately 390 students, with pupil teacher ratios of 15:1 in three-and four-year-old kindergarten, 17:1 in five-year-old kindergarten and first grade, and 20:1 in grades two through eight.

The recommendations stand in sharp contrast to current MPS practice, which has elementary schools containing from 200 to over 1000 students and class sizes as large as 34. According to official MPS figures, 26% of all kindergarten through sixth grade classes in 1990-1991 had 30 or more students. The number of these overcrowded classes doubled from previous years, when they were only 11 or 12% of the total. In some schools class sizes continue to increase after these official figures are tallied on the third Friday of the school year.

While class size has risen in recent years, so too has the number of poor children in MPS. In 1970, 15% of the children in MPS were eligible for a federal free lunch. Today that figure is nearer 60%.

In making its recommendations for smaller classes, the report pointed to research on class size, particularly that of the Tennessee STAR program (see article on p.15), which demonstrates that academic achievement significantly increases for children in kindergarten through 3rd grade classes with a student teacher ratio of 15:1.

Advocates for smaller class size argue that when class sizes get smaller, teacher-student contact is increased, classroom management improves, individualization is more likely to occur, student and teacher attitudes improve, teacher stress decreases, and teachers are more likely to try innovative techniques.

At a School Board hearing in October, members of the Facilities Committee argued that smaller classes would set the stage for successful implementation of the MPS K-12 curriculum reform, (see Rethinking Schools, Vol. 6 #1), and allow teachers to build one-on-one relationships with students.

Exceptional Education

The educational standards call for most exceptional education students to be integrated into regular classrooms, and counted on the enrollment list of those classrooms. Presently, some teachers have exceptional education students mainstreamed into already overcrowded classrooms. This is particularly true for art, music, and other specialist classes at the elementary and middle school level. The recommendations also call for rooms of different sizes, and some with movable walls, so that schools can accommodate changes in exceptional education programs.


Of the 31 school districts in the Metropolitan Milwaukee Area in the 1990-91 school year, MPS ranked 19th in per pupil expenditure, according to figures from the Public Policy Forum, a non-profit research group. Milwaukee spent $6,166 per pupil, compared to Nicolet Union’s $8,098 and Elmbrook’s $7,209. If one were to take a 25 student classroom as the standard, this would mean that a typical classroom in Milwaukee has $48,300 less per year to spend than a classroom in Nicolet-Union.

This funding inequity directly affects schools. Average class size in MPS hovers around 27, while in most suburbs it’s 22, according to the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. In addition, many MPS elementary schools don’t have art or music rooms or full-sized libraries. Most suburban schools do. These inequities are likely to increase, given that most school funding comes from property taxes.

According to the Public Policy Forum, Milwaukee ranks last out of the 31 school districts in property value per student. In Milwaukee there is $144,679 worth of property to be taxed per student, while in the Nicolet-Union school district there is $484,808, in Elmbrook there is $468,694 and in Mequon-Thiensville there is $405,049. While state aid partly offsets this inequity, it is insufficient to deal with current needs.

Parent Involvement

Increased parental involvement is a key ingredient to creating decent schools. The Facilities Committee’s recommendations promote such involvement by proposing that new schools be built in neighborhoods with lots of children, thereby creating more neighborhood schools. MPS estimates that there are about 25,000 students in the inner city who do not have access to seats in their neighborhood schools. Parental involvement would also be enhanced by including a “Parent Resource” room in each school where parents could feel welcome and could meet to discuss school policy.

Vision for the Community

At the first discussion between the School Board and the Facilities Committee in October, several board members made it clear a facilities plan must encompass a vision for the future. The final drafts of the plan contained such a vision, calling for schools to be “intergenerational, cultural, educational, and recreational” centers for the community.

“Our vision must also address the larger crisis afflicting our communities” the report said. “In some neighborhoods, the public school is one of the few community institutions that is functioning. While schools can not solve our community’s problems, our vision of their role in the community can impact on our city’s ability to resolve urban problems such as gangs, child abuse and neglect, illiteracy, and lack of health care.” The Facilities Committee recommends that schools be built so they could serve as youth recreational centers, adult educational sites, and social service centers.

The idea of building dozens of neighbor-hood-based school/community centers to deal with the issues of gangs, crime, and drugs is due in part to a recognition that high levels of unemployment and inadequate recreational facilities offer few options for urban youth. The Public Policy Forum, in its June 1991 report, A Focus on Recreation in the Milwaukee Agenda, exposed the gap between the need for recreational programs for Milwaukee’s central city youth and the dwindling availability of such programs. Even the current Milwaukee Recreation Department programs are more oriented toward adult education than young people between 15 and 25 years old.


While many people may agree with both the vision and specifics of this new facilities plan, there is one major stumbling block: money, or more accurately the lack of it.

The current recession combined with the decade long Reagan-Bush cutback in social services, including schools, makes finding adequate funding for this bold plan an uphill battle.

School building referenda in southeast Wisconsin have had a tough time getting past taxpayers who are squeezed financially and who are skeptical of the quality of schooling. Over a dozen referenda have been rejected in the past year. The passage of a $36 million referendum in Waukesha this fall was a notable exception.

Nationally, sizeable referenda have won voter approval in areas where business, teachers, and community groups worked together. For example, two years ago Dade County voters in Florida approved a $980 million bond proposal as part of a $1.2 billion building program. And in November 1991, a massive grassroots effort in Minneapolis convinced voters to support a $136 million tax levy to lower class sizes (see Rethinking Schools, Vol. 5, No. 2). Most recently, voters in the cities of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Seattle backed sizable school levies. In a referendum this October, voters in Oklahoma affirmed a 5-year, $2 billion school reform package which included measures to lower class sizes to no more than 20 in the primary grades by 1993.

Whether Milwaukee voters will approve money for new schools depends on many factors. One is whether the current board, administration, and teachers union can work together to convince the public that the money will be well spent. Another issue is whether politicians, community leaders, and citizens care enough about our children’s future to provide the necessary leadership. Leadership doesn’t seem to be lacking to spend tens of millions of dollars of public monies on a new County Stadium or several hundred million dollars on a light rail system. Will our children and youth be as high on the priority list for Milwaukee politicians? Obviously a grassroots, broad-based coalition supporting new school/ community centers will be an integral ingredient in any successful effort.

Another factor involves how much the state and federal government can be pressured to come up with funds. Currently, legislation exists on both levels that could substantially help Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Education Association Council has proposed a state bond for up to $100 million to build neighborhood schools and reduce class sizes in Milwaukee. On the federal level, the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s 45 largest school districts, is supporting the Urban Schools Act (USA). Among other things, the act calls for $1.5 billion a year in grants to renovate and repair aging schools through the year 2000. Success on either of these levels would decrease the amount of money that needs to be raised on a local level through property taxes.


It’s uncertain how school board and city officials will react to the proposals for new facilities. The School Board might be pressured to water down the proposals to a politically palatable, but educationally insignificant level.

It would be disastrous if political leaders in the city were unwilling to ask the public to support a bold facilities plan. Short-term political expediency should not be valued over the long-term needs of our city. While politicians may talk of equality and putting resources into the “front end” of life, exercising the political leadership necessary to actually lead the city out of its current crisis may be another matter.

Few people deny that our city is in crisis: that youth unemployment is at depression levels; that crime, gangs, and despair are at an all time high. Nor do people contest that smaller class sizes, improved education, and dozens of youth/neighborhood recreation centers would dramatically improve life for children and youth.

The question is whether city politicians have the courage and political will to unite this community around a major effort to rebuild our city schools and save our children. If they do, more power to them. If they don’t, it’s time for students, parents, educators, and community groups to build a broad-based coalition to demand that adequate resources be spent on our young people. Our children deserve nothing less.

Bob Peterson wrote this article with help from the Rethinking Schools editorial board.

Peterson is a co-editor of Rethinking Schools, a member of the Facilities Committee, and writes frequently about class size and school facilities issues.