Department of Education leaders held a hearing Wednesday night to collect public comment on their proposed Contract for Excellence. As the Manhattan member of the Panel for Educational Policy, I presented the following testimony on behalf of Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer:
I understand that the success of our school system has been and continues to be the top priority of the Mayor and Chancellor. While I share in the excitement about the pending arrival of this vital new state funding, I have serious concerns about the current Contract for Excellence.
First, I would like to discuss the serious flaws in this process. In order to account for the Campaign for Equity (CFE) lawsuit funds issued by the state, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) must submit a Contract for Excellence plan. Holding hearings in the middle of school summer break, with little outreach, one week before the plan is submitted to the State Education Department is not sufficient time to digest and respond to the public's concerns. I urge the Department of Education to seriously address the issues brought before them today and act to amend the plan before its submission.
In addition, this plan should come before the Panel on Educational Policy (PEP) for a vote. The PEP is specifically charged with the responsibility to "consider and approve any other standards, policies, objectives, and regulations as specifically authorized or required by state or federal law or regulation (NYS Education Law § 2590-g (1)(b))." As the Contract for Excellence plan submission has been mandated by state law, it is required to come before the PEP for approval. It is imperative the PEP functions properly as a part of the Department of Education government structure.
Outside of this poor process, there are serious issues regarding the Fair Student Funding formula and class size reduction as laid out in the plan. One true weakness of the plan is its reliance on an unproven funding mechanism. The Contracts for Excellence were supposed to focus on students with the greatest educational need. An original finding of the CFE judgment was that the city's schools were deficient in class size, retention of teachers and instrumentalities of learning. While Fair Student Funding will place new money as well as decision-making authority into some schools, it does nothing for about half of the city's schools. In Manhattan Districts 4 (East Harlem) and 5 (Central Harlem) the proportion is actually much higher -- 2 of 3 schools are considered "unfairly over-funded" by DOE. For these students, the DOE offers simply "accountability" - more testing - yet no substantive educational programs. Fair Student Funding is a new and unproven approach to budgeting. Its effects are still unclear and poorly understood. Reliance on it for allocating the new state money is inappropriate. There must be a more tangible dividend from Campaign for Fiscal Equity for all our schools.
In place of tangible benefits, the DOE offers "accountability initiatives" such as the McGraw Hill contract for interim tests, new staff positions called Senior Achievement Facilitators, Data Inquiry Teams and the like. Excessive standardized testing, supercomputers and bureaucratic staff positions will not help teachers provide differentiated instruction as DOE claims. Our teachers need smaller classes to better focus on the needs of each student.
The law requires class size reduction to specifically target "low performing and overcrowded schools." In drafting the law, the state legislature reflected common sense - resolve overcrowding by focusing on the weakest schools first. The DoE's allocation formula, Fair Student Funding (FSF), considers neither overcrowding nor poor performance in determining the allocation of funds to schools. While the state has identified 382 city schools in need of improvement or restructuring, 47% of the identified schools will not receive new funding under the FSF and therefore will have no class size reduction plan.
Most important, the plan offers no alignment of physical capacity or capital budget for new seats with the class size reduction plan. Principals may be given more funds under FSF but in most cases will not have space to add classes. DOE has provided a document purporting to show alignment of the capital budget with class size reduction but there is nothing more than "placeholders" of number of seats plugged in at the district level and no investment to reduce class size beyond the third grade.
The absence of a coherent plan demonstrates a lack of willingness to be held accountable for overcrowding. No one wants the mayor and chancellor to fail in their efforts to improve our schools. However, if they continue their refusal to plan for and spend new state funding as intended, the state must hold them accountable.