Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Not-so-hot news from Class Size Matters; and how you can help

I hope you are having a relaxing summer. Unfortunately, the last few weeks haven't been much fun for Class Size Matters. We recently discovered that we lost over $7000, including the donations to our annual fundraiser in June, because NYCharities, our online processor, appears to have collapsed, as reported by Fox News. I am also quoted in this article about our losses.

NY Charities is a well-known organization used by many non-profits, large and small; but it turns out they actually lost their nonprofit status in Aug. 2018 for failing to file three years of financial reports, with the IRS quietly posting this revocation on their website in Nov. 2018. Yet neither the IRS nor the Charities Bureau of the NY Attorney General's office told anyone about it. I only learned about it from a reporter a few weeks ago.

I have filed complaints with the Charities Bureau which now says they are investigating the situation, but meanwhile, Shino Tanikawa, a NYC parent leader, offered to put up a GoFundMe for us. It’s here:

We operate on a shoestring budget and $7000 is a lot of money for us. Please give if you can. 

Also, in the last few weeks, we have been served with two subpoenas, one from the Attorney General office in regards the NYSER lawsuit, for which we agreed to be a plaintiff along with many organizations who are suing the state for more equitable education funding. The AG subpoena is unusually onerous, as reported by the media here and here, and demands twelve years of our communications and findings related to school funding and classroom conditions.

I was also served with a subpoena by Success Academy charter schools, for a lawsuit in which a parent of a special needs child is suing Success for mistreating and pushing out her child. In 2017, we provided this parent advice and helped her find an attorney; I expect to be deposed in the case as well. Thankfully, Laura D. Barbieri of Advocates for Justice is serving as our pro bono attorney in regards the Attorney General and Success Academy subpoenas.

But please do contribute to Class Size Matters, or else the losses we suffered will hurt our ability to advocate for smaller classes, an end to school overcrowding, more transparency and parent involvement in education decision-making – - as well as stronger student privacy.

---Thanks for your support, Leonie

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

With little fanfare and some disappointment, yesterday's second and final meeting of the School Siting Task Force was held

Indecipherable power points at Monday's School Siting Task Force meeting

Yesterday the second, and it turned out, the final meeting of the School Siting Task Force was held. Reports of this disappointing meeting were published in the Daily News and the Wall Street Journal today.

To recap: In their Planning to Learn report, released in March 2018, the City Council made several proposals to speed up the process of school planning and siting, whose generally slow pace has contributed to over 500,000 NYC students being consigned to overcrowded schools.

In some neighborhoods where the schools are overcrowded, twenty years or more have lapsed without a new one being built, because of the apparent inability of the School Construction Authority (SCA) and the DOE to identify locations, even when these schools have been funded in the capital plan.

The SCA has only four real estate brokers citywide on retainer to help them to find suitable sites, and these brokers never "cold call" or reach out to owners to see if they might sell their properties to the city before they are put on the open market.  Cold calling is considered a "must" in the hot real estate market that is NYC.

The Council’s Planning to Learn report suggested that a process be created to "Improve the school site identification process … that would review City real estate transactions to identify opportunities for SCA. Additionally, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) should alert the Department of Education (DOE) and SCA if a property of appropriate size for a school becomes available."

As a result, the City Council passed Local Law No. 168 in Sept. 2018 to create aninteragency task force to review relevant city real estate transactions to identify opportunities for potential school sites,” including “city-owned buildings, city-owned property and vacant land within the city to evaluate potential opportunities for new school construction or leasing for school use.” The law also said that this task force should provide a report to the City Council no later than July 31, 2019 on their findings.

The first meeting of this task force was held privately on Feb. 26, 2019. After I heard about it, I asked the City Council and the DOE if subsequent meetings would be open to the public, since any official body created by law is subject to Open Meetings Law, according to the expert opinion of the NY State Committee on Open Government.  Initially, I got nowhere fast with either the Council or the Mayor’s office.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer also sent a letter, urging the DOE to comply with Open Meetings Law and allow members of the public attend. In my experience, it has been parents and members of the community who often have the best and most useful suggestions when it comes to siting schools.

Then in April 2019, an article in City Limits was published that discussed how the city intended to keep these meetings private, using this issue as an example of an overall lack of transparency on the part of the de Blasio administration. Subsequently, on May 2, Chancellor Carranza and SCA President Lorraine Grillo responded to Comptroller Stringer, saying the public be would be allowed to attend future meetings, though they refused to concede that they were legally obligated to do so:

Although we disagree with your position that the Task Force is subject to the OML, we do not object to opening Task Force meetings to the general public, consistent with our commitment to community input and engagement. Accordingly, future meetings of the Task Force will be open to the public.

Fast forward until last week, when one of the members of the Task Force, Shino Tanikawa of CEC2, sent around a message to our NYC Education list that the second and final meeting of the Task Force would be held on Monday, July 29 at City Hall from 3-5 PM, and that this meeting would be open to the public.

Five months had gone by between Feb. 26 and July 29, without the Task Force meeting once.

During yesterday’s final meeting, Lorraine Grillo and her staff from the SCA projected a bunch of undecipherable spreadsheets, listing thousands of city-owned properties and privately-owned land, the vast majority of which they had ruled out as unsuitable for schools, because they were too small, not in the right areas, or strangely configured. They said they had found only two sites out of more than 7,000 properties owned by the city that might be good sites for schools: one where the former Flushing airport had been located, and another adjacent to John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. In addition, they said, they were continuing to explore and analyze some of the privately-owned properties.

Their presentation only lasted about 15 minutes, and then Liz Hoffman of the Deputy Mayor’s office who was running the meeting opened it up to questions. None of the Task Force members asked any questions, but several were asked by members of the audience, which included mostly parents and a few reporters.

I asked if the public could have a copy of these spreadsheets. Liz Hoffman said no. She did not explain why they were withholding this information, only that the release of the data was not specified in the law that created the task force. (I have now FOILed the spreadsheets -- as any “statistical or factual tabulations or data” created by city agencies must be made publicly available, according to the relevant state law. ]

Leslie Brody, the WSJ reporter, asked two good questions: how many sites for schools the SCA needed to find; and whether the city had any requirement to include schools in large scale developments. The SCA said they were looking for about 45,000 school seats out of a projected need for 57,000. [The most current version of the five-year plan lists only 11,538 seats out of the 57,000 funded that are “completed or in process,” which usually means those that at least have sites.]

The answer to the second question was no, the city had no requirement that schools must be included in large-scale developments.

Shortly afterwards, I pointed out that the 57,000 estimate for need for seats was a projection that was nearly two years old. Lorraine Grillo agreed, but said their projections would be updated next November. That figure also doesn’t include 3K and preK seats, though the Mayor has sharply expanded the number of these programs in schools, causing worse overcrowding in more than 350 elementary schools.

[The five-year capital plan released in Nov. 2018 had no estimates for the need for new seats –the first capital plan since 2011 not to include this figure. We pointed out this and other problems with the five-year plan here. ]

Lisa Goren of Long Island City Coalition asks a question
Lisa Goren from the Long Island City Coalition asked about the large DOE-owned building on Vernon Boulevard that the Mayor had planned to give to Amazon for its headquarters – despite the fact that the community had been advocating for it to be converted into schools for more than a year.

Lorraine Grillo said that the building isn’t empty and is being used by DOE and SCA (for offices etc.) and therefore wasn’t on the list of the available properties; she implied it was up to the Mayor to decide on its ultimate disposition.

[Apparently there is also a municipal parking garage at Court Square that some LIC community members want to be converted into schools.]

Another reporter asked if there was a timeline by when they expected to finish analyzing the privately-owned sites to see if they were appropriate for schools; and the SCA said no, there was no specific timeline.

When will the report be released? July 31, as specified in the law. Will it be made available to the public? No, just to the City Council.

Will there be a second report? No. Will there be an ongoing process of consultation between city agencies to help the SCA find sites in the future? Yes, but nothing formal.

What should people do if they have questions about the report? After much hemming and hawing, Liz Hoffman said people could email her at

[The SCA is also open to hearing about possible sites; if you have suggestions, you can email them at or fill in the form here. More on what they’re looking for in terms of optimal specs here. ]

The City Limits article mentioned above quoted the DOE as follows: “A spokesman for the DOE told City Limits, “We are committed to continue partnering with parents and community on this issue, and are exploring how to best solicit input moving forward.”

I have no evidence that anyone from the task force “solicited input” from the public in any way, but instead kept community members and stakeholders in the dark. Yet it is my experience that the best ideas on how to improve our schools, including the chronic problem of overcrowding, often come from those on the ground and most affected by these issues.

It is regrettable that rather than welcome collaboration with parents and advocates, the city continues to restrict it. Several members of the Task Force told me that even they have not seen a copy of the report that is due to be released to the City Council tomorrow, with their names attached.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Commissioner Elia resigns; let's hope for a better one next time!

The serious concerns we expressed yesterday and shared with the Board of Regents about NYSED's new proposed privacy regs were overwhelmed in news of Commissioner Elia's sudden resignation.  What wasn't reported on in the media crush, at least as far as I've noticed, is that the Regents were set to discuss whether to fire her during their annual retreat that started yesterday afternoon.  Clearly, Elia jumped the gun with her announcement and as a result, she was able to control the narrative, with many of the news stories featured overly positive review of her regime.

Last year, the final RAND report on the teacher evaluation project was released, showing that the initiative she led in Hillsborough County before she was fired by that school board and came to NY had no positive results and in fact, resulted in less access to effective teachers for high-needs kids.  In addition, the initiative left the district in severe fiscal disarray.

I recall when NYSAPE members and I met with her after she was first appointed in 2015.  We detailed the issues with the invalid, overly long and developmentally inappropriate state tests and Common Core standards, as well as many other problems ranging from the state's refusal to oversee the increases in NYC class sizes to their laggardly pace in enforcing the 2014 student privacy law.  She said very little, but ended by claiming that somehow, all the problems with the tests would be solved by putting them online. Never did I suspect it would take four more years for them to issue regulations to enact the 2014 student privacy law, and when they did they would attempt to eliminate the ban against selling student data or using it for marketing purposes.

During her time in NY, she never seemed to grasp just how awful the tests were, and compounded their abusive nature by administering them untimed, which led to some children spending up to six hours or more a day trying to make sense out of them, until they collapsed in frustration. Nor did she make the changes in the standards that many of the early childhood experts on her own advisory committees demanded. Her modus operandi seemed to be to form myriad committees and advisory boards, and post numerous surveys, but then pretty much ignore all the public input she received.

As the NYSAPE press release says, let's hope the Board of Regents work with parents and other stakeholders in the appointment of  a new Commissioner this time who will steer the state in a better direction; the last four have been pretty awful.  The press release has a hopeful title.  We shall have to see whether indeed this the end of the state's long-lasting, damaging corporate reform agenda.

Monday, July 15, 2019

NYSED attempts to radically weaken NY Student privacy law to allow for the selling of student data

Here and below is a letter that NYSAPE, Class Size Matters and the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy sent to the Board of Regents last night.  
The Regents were set to discuss newly revised proposed student privacy regulations this morning which considerably weaken the state's student privacy law passed in 2014, NY Education § 2-d , that was approved by the Legislature as a result of the controversy over inBloom.  At that time, the Legislature blocked the state's plan to hand off a a wealth of personal student information to this Gates-funded corporation and also passed a new law modeled on CA legislation , which wisely prohibited the sale and use of personal student data for marketing purposes under any circumstances.  
Instead, the new proposed regulations  posted here would allow for the sale and use of student data for marketing purposes as long as there was “consent” on the part of parents and/or eligible students, by claiming that it would no longer be defined as marketing.  This radical redefinition of the law was made presumably at the behest of College Board and ACT.  
The College Board, which makes millions of dollars from selling student data while claiming that it does not, was recently exposed by the NY Times as selling the information to third parties which in turn sell it to even more unscrupulous organizations to make money off unsuspecting families.  The College Board harvests much of this data off students deceptively before the administration of the PSATs and SATs, without parent knowledge, a practice that we have written about extensively and more recently has been criticized by the US Department of Education.
There are many other problems with these proposed regulations that would further restrict the ability of parents to keep their children's information safe from abuse, as we had pointed out in our comments on the regulations as originally drafted.
In addition, according to the state law, NYSED Chief Privacy Officer is supposed to produce a report each year on the progress made in protecting student privacy, including the results of investigations of breaches and parental complaints.  And yet NYSED officials have refused to provide any such reports, even after being asked for them. 
Here is the agenda of today’s Regents meeting – the early morning session  were live-streamed but unfortunately not the session starting at 10:30 AM where these regulations will discussed.  
The letter was quickly drafted over the weekend because as it points out, we had no advance warning that these regulations were being released until they appeared on the Regents agenda; apologies if there are some grammatical errors.  More soon.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Comments on the Citizens Budget Commission report on alleviating school overcrowding

Today, Citizens Budget Commission came out with a new report , entitled Cut Costs, Not Ribbons, suggesting ways the city could help alleviate school overcrowding without building more school seats.

Using data from the DOE’s annual school utilization report from 2017-18 school year, otherwise known as the Blue Book, the author Riley Edwards concluded there were 618 overcrowded schools lacking about 96,000 seats. Building new schools is expensive and slow, and rather than rely purely on new school construction to address overcrowding, they made several useful proposals.

I agree with two of the proposals: School re-zonings should be undertaken far more frequently by DOE, especially when two or more adjacent elementary schools diverge radically in terms of utilization rates. The report’s author estimates about 16,000 additional seats could be obtained in this manner.

And since DOE completely controls the enrollment process at most high schools (only 22 of 432 high schools are zoned, according to the report), far more effort should be made to equalize high school overcrowding across the city, which the author estimates could add about another 31,000 seats.

I would slightly amend the latter proposal to suggest that it is especially important to cap enrollment at struggling high schools to be able to lower class size in these schools. It is especially outrageous that certain high schools that have been on various “failing” lists over the years, including most recently the Renewal list, should still remain so overcrowded: for example, Long Island City HS (at 108%) and Flushing HS (at 137%).

Two of the CBC proposals, though, are unrealistic and/or inadvisable. Since many middle schools are rated as underutilized, they suggest creating new elementary schools to be co-located with middle schools. It is far from ideal for elementary kids to share space with middle school students, for educational and social reasons. More importantly, the creation of more co-located schools is not a good strategy, since they are costly in terms of extra staffing and eat up classroom space with the need to add replicated administrative and specialty rooms for each new school.

The next proposal made in the report seems to admit to the inefficiencies created by co-locations: the authors suggest requiring co-located schools to share administrative spaces, such as principal offices, to free up more space for classrooms. This is unrealistic. One cannot expect an administrator of one school to share his or her office with an official from another school; moreover, this would create all sorts of privacy issues and potential violations of FERPA. It would be especially unworkable in the case of the hundreds of charter schools that now share buildings with our public schools.

The report also suggests putting more schools on split sessions - which is already used by 42 overcrowded high schools and has negative impacts on the ability of many students to participate in sports, clubs and other after-school activities.  This method should only be used as a temporary stopgap method, in my opinion.

An overarching weakness in the report is it does not really address the issue of future enrollment growth. While it states that overall, the DOE projects citywide enrollment decline, this ignores two critical factors: The DOE and their consultants have often been wrong in their predictions of enrollment decline in the past, and even now, their projections show continued increases in many neighborhoods, especially in Queens and Southern Brooklyn, which cannot be addressed via re-zonings because most of the elementary schools in these areas are already overcrowded.

Thus the actual need for seats is likely to be more than the 96,000 shortage the report now assumes, and will likely take a more aggressive capital plan to address. It doesn’t help that the DOE removed any assessment of current or future seats needs from the new five-year capital plan released last year, for the first time since 2011, even as the City Council and advocates had urged them to provide a more detailed explanation of how they make these assessments.

If one assumes the need for smaller classes than the school utilization formula now assumes – especially in grades 4-8, where the formula assumes classes of 28 students per class and in high school, which assumes 30, the need for even more school space is even more clear.

One more thing: we did an analysis of the seats built under Bloomberg vs de Blasio, and found that during de Blasio's first term, the School Construction Authority created fewer school seats than in any of Bloomberg’s three terms, and will likely build even fewer during his second term. See below chart, using data collected from Mayor Management Reports and the new five-year capital plan.

The CBC report has a slightly different chart but shows much the same trends.One caveat: none of these figures include the many school seats lost annually, as we pointed out in our 2014 Space Crunch report, due to lapsed building leases, the elimination of annexes and/or removal of trailers. The number of seats lost have been considerable in number --with many thousands of seats lost annually, and yet this figure has never been reported on or accounted for in any capital plan by either administration.

Our more recent 2018 report, The Impact of PreK on School Overcrowding in NYC: Lack of Planning, Lack of Space, pointed out how more than 350 elementary schools in 2016-2017 became even more overcrowded as a result of de Blasio’s rapid and often haphazard expansion of preK and 3K -- which should also have led him to finance a more aggressive capital plan but didn't -- further diminishing the educational experiences of more than a quarter million students in grades K-5.