Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our comments on how the city's proposed Contract for Excellence plan violates the language and the spirit of the law

Please send your comments to by the deadline of July 19; Mine are below.  thanks!  

Comments on the proposed Contract for Excellence plan from the NYC Department of Education

July 16, 2014

From:  Leonie Haimson, Class Size Matters

The Contract for Excellence law (C4E) was passed in 2007 as a direct result of the Court of Appeals decision in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, in which the state’s highest court found that New York City schoolchildren were deprived of their constitutional right to receive a “sound basic education,” in large part because of excessive class sizes. For example, the court found that “over half of New York City schoolchildren are in classes of 26 or more, and tens of thousands are in classes of over 30.” 

The Court ordered the state to reform its school funding system, and for the state to “ensure[s] a system of accountability to measure whether the reforms actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education.” 

The Contracts for Excellence law promised additional state funding to struggling districts in return for a pledge that they would spend them on five evidence-based reforms, later expanded to six.  For NYC, they added one crucial requirement:  that the city would submit a plan with annual targets to reduce class size in all grades to be achieved over five years.  Here are the regulations:
  1. In the city school district of the City of New York, include a plan that meets the requirements of clause (c)(2)(i)(a) of this section, to reduce average class sizes within five years for the following grade ranges:
    1. prekindergarten through grade three;
    2. grades four through eight; and
    3. grades nine through twelve.
Such plan shall be aligned with the capital plan of the city school district of the City of New York and include continuous class size reduction for low performing and overcrowded schools beginning in the 2007-2008 school year and thereafter.

Though the city’s original C4E plan, approved in Nov. 2007, called for the city to lower class size in all grades, instead class sizes have increased each year, and are now the largest in 15 years in grades K-3 and the largest since 2002 in grades 4-8.  As news account attest, more than 330,000 students attended classes of 30 or larger last year.  

Recent reports by Class Size Matters, the Independent Budget Office and the City Comptroller’s office show that school overcrowding has also worsened since 2007, in part because the school capital plan was never aligned with the city’s class size reduction plan.  

How do we know this? The class size standards in school utilization formula in the annual school capacity report known as the Blue Book, which are supposed to drive the capital plan, are larger in every grade (28 in grades 4-8 and 30 in high school) than current class size averages except in K-3, and thus will tend to force class sizes even higher. There are no class size standards at all in the Instructional Footprint that the DOE devised to decide where to put school co-locations, as these standards were eliminated in 2010.  Thus, wherever there is “excess” space in a school building, DOE inserts another school rather than lower class size.

The DOE has made many other policy decisions that have undermined the efforts of school principals to reduce class size, including cutting school budgets by about 14% since 2007; eliminating the early grade class size funds in 2010 (despite the fact that they had promised to retain this program in their 2007 class size plan), and eliminating class size limits of 28 in grades 1-3 in 2011.  These class size limits had existed for at least 15 years. Though the city claims that class sizes increased because of a lack of staqte funding, the increases began before the state cut education aid.  Why?  Because the DOE cut school staffing budgets first, violating another clause in the the C4E law which forbids “supplanting” – i.e. allowing state funds to substitute for city funds.   

Here is the language: “the increases in total foundation aid and supplemental educational improvement plan grants [will be] used to supplement, and not supplant funds allocated by the district in the base year for such purposes.”

This year the city’s C4E proposed plan openly supplants, with the following words in the school allocation memo:

“Supplement not Supplant: C4E funds are supplemental and generally may not be used to cover the costs of programs and personnel previously funded with tax levy dollars. However, there is an exception. C4E can fund the expense if the school can document and demonstrate that, due to cuts in tax levy funding, the programs or personnel would have been cut, if not for the availability of C4E dollars. Note that even in this "if not for" situation, the expenditure still must meet all of the programmatic requirements of C4E.”

In the accompanying Power Point, DOE claims that this is being done with the approval of the State Education Department: 

Expenditures made using C4E funds must “supplement, not supplant” funding provided by the school district; however, SED has provided guidance explaining that certain expenditures may be paid for with C4E funds even though these programs or expenditures were originally or have been typically paid for by the district or by other grants.”

We have no way of knowing if the State Education Department has given the city the permission to supplant, but if so, this appears to conflicts with state law.  What also appears to violate the law is the fact that principals are being allowed to use these funds to minimize class size increases, rather than reduce class size.  Here is the language from the School Allocation Memo:

“Minimize growth of class size in FY12- fund a teacher to minimize the growth in class size that the school would have otherwise experienced given budget cuts. Note: School must demonstrate that these positions would have been cut in FY12. Teachers must be supplemental to the number required by contract.”

First of all, this should of course say FY 15 – not FY 12.  But more importantly, there is nothing in the C4E law that would allow the city to use these funds to minimize class size increases.  Instead, it clearly requires the city to reduce class size.

 The DOE’s C4E plan each year, as approved by the state, also includes a special commitment to reduce class size in a list of 75 high priority schools, which are described as low-achieving and over-crowded.  

This arrangement does not fulfill the language in the law that requires the city to reduce average class size system-wide – since 75 schools represents a tiny percentage of the more than 1700 or so public schools in NYC.  Yet we have found that even in these high-priority 75 schools, class sizes have not been reduced, as there is no funding attached and no oversight.

Of the 65 elementary and middle schools on the priority list for class size reduction for 2013-2014, 30 increased in average class size; and in 22 of them, by more than half a student per class.  Two schools increased average class sizes by more than 20%.   Of the ten high schools on the list, in three the student/teacher ratio was unchanged or increased. 

This is no surprise if you look at the spending by these schools on class size reduction: twenty of the 75 schools spent ZERO money on class size reduction.  And more than half spent less than $100,000 – not enough to pay for a new teacher.

To make matters worse, four schools on the list were being phased out:  Jonathan Levin HS, JHS 302 Rafael Cordero, Business and Computer Applications, and Entrepreneurship High School in the Bronx and PS 156 Laurelton in Queens.

We actually went to visit one of the elementary schools on the list, which is a “focus” school.  The principal told us she had never been informed that she was on a priority list for class size reduction, and had been given no funds to do so.  In fact, another school had been co-located in her building, making it very hard to find the space.  And there were 29 and 30 students in some of the school’s classes, most of them English language learners and new immigrants to the country.

What does this show?  That even in the tiny subset of struggling schools that DOE has made a special commitment to reduce class size, they have no interest in following through on their promises.
This is a long standing problem: When we examined the original priority 75 list for class size reduction, by 2011 seven of them were persistently low achieving (PLA) schools:  Lehman HS, JHS 80 and MS 391 in the Bronx, Boys and Girls and FDR HS in Brooklyn, and Newtown HS and Bryant HS in Queens.  

Three more schools were added to the city’s priority list for class size reduction in 2011:  Long Island City HS in Queens, JHS 22, and JHS 166 and Dewey HS in Brooklyn.  What happened in these high schools? 

NONE of these schools came close to meeting their class size reduction targets at the end of the year.  All of these schools continued to have class sizes far above the state averages of 21, and far above their reduction targets of 24.3 to 24.8 students per class.

In only one of the schools had class sizes been lowered significantly since 2007.  The other schools had class sizes unacceptably near 30, and in the cases of Bryant HS and Boys and Girls HS, and Long Island City HS, class sizes had increased sharply.

Mayor de Blasio campaigned on a promise that he would commit to achieving specific class size reduction goals by the end of first term and if necessary, raise revenue to fund this.  He also pledged that he would comply with the plan the city submitted in 2007, calling for class size reduction in all grades.  We hope that you will follow-up with these promises.

Smaller classes are the number one priority of parents in DOE surveys every year.  In responding to a  survey, NYC principals said classes should be no larger than 20 in grades K-3, no larger than 23 in grades 4-5, and no larger than 24 in all other grades in order to provide a quality education.

We urge the DOE to commit to reducing class size by allocating a substantial share of the more than $600 million in C4E funds specifically towards this goal, as a citywide initiative, and make sure that the funds are used appropriately, to hire additional teachers to reduce class size, especially in struggling schools.  We also urge the DOE to immediately re-institute the early grade class size program that was eliminated in 2010, and to restore the cap on class sizes in grades 1-3 at 28 students, that was eliminated in 2011. 

Please heed the decision of the state’s highest court, listen to parents, educators, and what research shows, and follow through with the mayor’s promises to voters by reducing class size.  New York City public school children deserve their right to a quality education.

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