Monday, December 30, 2019

Breaking: Our class size appeal will be heard on Jan. 13 in Albany!

Big news just announced today: Our class size lawsuit vs NYC and NY State, Agostini vs. Elia, will finally be heard on Monday, January 13 at 1 PM in the Appellate Court in Albany.

Last spring, May 23, 2019 , attorney Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center filed our appeal on behalf of nine NYC parents, Class Size Matters and the Alliance for Quality Education.  We sued the State Education Commissioner and the Chancellor, and urged the Appellate court to order the NYC Department of Education to reduce class size in all grades as the Contracts for Excellence law requires. 

Our original lawsuit, Agostini vs. Elia, was filed in April 2018 when then-NYS Education Commissioner Elia refused to take action to enforce the Contracts for Excellence law in response to our original complaint.  

The C4E law was first approved in 2007 and required NYC to lower class size; instead class sizes increased sharply and remain at levels far higher than when that law was passed.  

Yet in December 2018, Acting Supreme Court Judge Henry Zwack ruled against us in a skimpy decision that engaged with neither the law or the facts of the case; instead he claimed that this was merely a matter for Commissioner Elia to decide.  

Commissioner Elia had argued that any class size obligations on the part of the DOE had lapsed years ago. Yet as our appeal points out, if the Legislature wanted to eliminate this key legal obligation on the part of the city they would have done so, rather than renewing the provision every year.  Thus, the DOE's failure to lower class size is a continuing violation of law, and since the State Education Department has refused to hold city officials accountable for providing students with their constitutional right to a sound basic education, which includes smaller classes according to the Court of Appeals in the original CFE lawsuit, we have been forced to do so instead.

Unlike Judge Zwack, the Appellate Court has asked for copious back-up data on class sizes in NYC schools, which as the above charts make clear, have indeed risen dramatically since 2007.  Hopefully, that means these judges are engaged in the issue and will base their judgement on facts rather than the city's wishful thinking.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Please remember Class Size Matters in your year-end gift-giving!

Dear all--

I hope you had a wonderful holiday break with friends and family. Please consider making a year-end, tax-deductible donation to Class Size Matters so that we can continue our passionate advocacy for the smaller classes that all kids need for a quality education. We also promote the parent voice in education decision-making and the data privacy that students deserve.

Among our achievements this year - beating back the College Board which was pushing the NY State Education Department to allow their practice of selling of student data to continue. We also released a report showing that NYC is spending over a hundred million dollars annually on helping charters rent private space - including in some cases, in buildings that their charter management company owns.

Via a lawsuit last spring, we kept PS 25 open, an excellent public school in Brooklyn that the DOE wanted to close despite its excellent results and the small classes it provides for its students, 100% of them from low-income families.

We launched a new talk show and podcast on WBAI radio, called "Talk out of School." Our class size lawsuit vs DOE will be heard in the state appellate court in January.  Keep your fingers crossed for a positive outcome in that case.

But in addition to your good wishes, we need your financial support to keep going. If you appreciate our work, please do so now by clicking here.

Grateful for your help, Leonie

Monday, December 23, 2019

Yaffed's press conference responding to the revelation of foot-dragging by the city and state in taking action to ensure Yeshivas provide an adequate education to their students

One day after a Department of Investigation inquiry revealed that in 2017, the Mayor had delayed the release of an interim report into the quality of the education received by Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas students in exchange for the Legislature extending his control over the public schools, the NYC Department of Education finally released its letter to the State Education Department, summarizing the results of its long-awaited investigation into ultra-orthodox Yeshivas.

Even as the DOE letter reported that only two of 28 Yeshivas they visited provided anywhere near a substantially equivalent education compliant with state law, as found via pre-announced visits that ended last spring, they also soft-pedaled the results, with the Chancellor writing that, "The DOE recognizes and applauds the significant progress made as a result of the proactive steps many schools have taken. The DOE is committed to working collaboratively with the schools to assist them as they continue on the path of providing improved instruction."  More on the letter from the Forward, Gothamist and Politico.

In response, Yaffed held a well-attended press conference this morning.  Here is a story about today's presser from the Daily News.

Abbreviated excerpts of the points made are below in the form of  tweets; first from Naftuli Moster, Executive Director of Yaffed, who organized the formal complaint of Yeshiva graduates issued four years ago and has been pressing the state and the city to take action ever since.

Then David Bloomfield, professor of education policy and law at Brooklyn College, who maintains that by interfering in the Yeshiva investigation the mayor himself violated the law, as well as important support expressed for the city and the state to take strong and immediate action, expressed by State Senator Robert Jackson, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, and Beatrice Weber, a mom and a grandmother, who is suing the DOE and the Yeshiva that her son attends for educational neglect.

I spoke briefly about the fact that though it is nearly 2020,  it is shameful how thousands of NYC children are still receiving schooling that was basically designed in the middle ages - with high school students consigned to study the Talmud 12 hours a day, with no instruction in English, math, social studies or science -- and with the mayor refusing to take steps to address this for the most selfish of political reasons.

Below the tweets  are the full, powerful statements Naftuli and Ms. Weber made at the presser. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Investigation into DOE's Yeshiva inquiry reveals that the release of an interim report was delayed in return for the extension of mayoral control in 2017

Update: News clips re de Blasio trading delay of release of Yeshiva report for extension of mayoral control includes an explanation of the institutional context from Gothamist: 
In a letter to the City Council last year, former DOI Commissioner Mark Peters said he encountered interference and "visible anger" from the de Blasio administration when it came to investigating the yeshivas. Peters was fired by de Blasio after a report showed he had misled the City Council and overstepped his authority by allegedly trying to take over the SCI, which helped produce today's investigation. Peters argued that his ousting came at a convenient time for the mayor. De Blasio appointed Margaret Garnett to replace Peters, and the City Council confirmed her appointment.

Daily News has a debatable quote from new DOI head Garnett:
Margaret Garnett, the commissioner of the city Department of Investigations, said investigators concluded that since City Hall delayed the report in pursuit of a policy goal — to retain Mayor de Blasio’s control over city schools — rather than personal gain, the maneuver didn’t violate rules about obstruction of an investigation.
And yet see this from the NY1 story:
The mayor's office dismissed the DOI's findings, saying, “There’s no ‘there’ there, as evidenced by the finding of no wrongdoing." "Those are not the words I would use," Garnett said of the mayor’s office’s response.
More via THE CITY
, Wall Street Journal, NY1, New York Post,  and New York Times .

The City’s Commissioner of Investigation and  Special commissioner of Investigation for schools issued a joint statement today on the results of their investigations into the DOE's inquiry into the subpar education received by students in ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas, an inquiry  that began in 2015 after the organization Yaffed and 52 Yeshiva graduates and parents, alleging that at least 39 yeshivas in New York City were failing to meet the state standards requiring a "substantially equivalent" secular education. 

Much controversy has surrounded this issue, based on a suspicion that the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox on the Mayor has prevented a resolution of this issue. In their brief statement, only a few pages long, DOI and SCI reveal that political that a deal was indeed struck in 2017 in Albany between the mayor's representatives and an unnamed State Senator (most likely Simcha Felder) that the DOE would delay issuing any interim report on their investigations in return for extending Mayoral control over the public schools, and that “Following that agreement, the interim report was in fact delayed by approximately one year.”
At the same time, the DOI and Special Investigator conclude that “our investigation found that the agreement had little to no substantive effect on the progress of the Inquiry” which was hampered by other factors, including the unwillingness of the Yeshivas to cooperate.
They also conclude that there is “no evidence of any violations of relevant laws or regulations and did not identify any criminal conduct in connection with the release of DOE’s interim report”.
Most bizarrely, they add, “the evidence did not permit a conclusion as to whether the Mayor had personally authorized the offer to delay issuance of the interim report” which to my mind is so unlikely that it  puts the rest of their conclusions at doubt.
The key passage in the joint statement is here:
In June 2017, a special session of the New York State Legislature was called to vote on extension of mayoral control of New York City schools, among other things. DOI and SCI found that shortly before the vote in that special session, representatives of the Mayor’s Office agreed to delay the release of an interim report summarizing the status of the DOE’s Inquiry. This agreement was apparently made as part of a multi-pronged effort to bolster legislative support for continued mayoral control over the DOE, which was a significant legislative priority for the Mayor’s Office.
The evidence did not permit a conclusion as to whether the Mayor had personally authorized the offer to delay issuance of the interim report. However, the totality of the evidence indicates that the Mayor was aware that the offer to delay had been made, prior to the final push to secure the votes for mayoral control. After being informed of the commitment to delay the interim report, the Mayor personally participated in conversations with at least one state senator and Orthodox community leaders about their broader concerns regarding oversight of yeshivas and how those concerns related to the extension of mayoral control. One witness told DOI and SCI that the City was asked to delay the issuance of the report – then scheduled for summer 2017 – until April 2018. However, DOI and SCI were unable to confirm that any City official agreed to a specific release date or specific period of delay.
The agreement to delay the release of an interim report appears to have had minimal substantive impact on the Inquiry itself. Multiple witnesses told DOI and SCI that, as of June 2017, DOE’s Inquiry was still in its early stages and that any interim report issued at that time would have contained only limited information.
It is hard to know which is more toxic - the system of autocratic mayoral control which I and others critiqued at Assembly hearings this week;  or the damaging political deals the Mayor has made to keep it - which include not just a delay in issuing a report on the Yeshivas in 2017,  but also that same year, his agreement to an increase in the number of NYC charter schools. 
 Before that, as part of the deal to extend mayoral control in 2014 , de Blasio agreed to either co-locate charter schools in public school buildings or help pay for rent in private buildings – a legal obligation which no other district in the state or the nation has been saddled with, and that the DOE is now spending more than $100M per year on.
A question which the DOE/SCI statement does not answer is why the DOE inquiry into the Yeshivas was still in its early stages in June 2017 – given that the initial complaint was made in the July 2015.  See Yaffed’s timeline here.
Another question is what is now holding up the release of the DOE's final report, given that that the DOE visits to Yeshivas concluded last spring and that  Although the DOE has now visited all 28 yeshivas [originally named in the complaint that are still open], more than four years after the initial complaints, the DOE’s Inquiry continues.”
If the visits ended last spring, why does the DOE Inquiry continue and why has no report has yet been issued?  No explanation is provided.
All this makes one suspect that the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox community with the Mayor and City Hall continues to hamper DOE’s actions and reporting on this issue.
The original concept of having a separate elected school board that appoints a district Superintendent or in NYC’s case, a Chancellor, was based on the notion that education decision-making should be insulated as much as possible from these sorts of political back-room deals.  

Readers, please feel free to leave your thoughts below.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

What lessons should the Council learn from two of their failed Task forces?

The City Council likes to create task forces to investigate important policy issues and propose changes, but then leaves them unattended and under the entire control of the Mayor, whose office screws them up.  
One recent example is Automated Decision System Task force, created by Council  Local Law 49 ,  that was supposed to investigate city agencies’ use of automated decision-making and deliver a report with recommendations.
The law was widely celebrated and promoted by the Mayor’s office as the first attempt by any municipality to embark on a systematic analysis of the controversial trend of using non-transparent algorithms to make crucial governmental decisions in criminal justice, education and elsewhere. 
In NYC, algorithms have been used by many cities agencies, and are used by the DOE for school enrollment and admission decisions, as well as well as teacher evaluation  and even flagging certain students as potential risk for dropping out through "early warning systems". The use of such algorithms have been criticized as both "black boxes" that are difficult to understand and may further reify various kinds of bias and injustice in a way that is difficult to discern and counteract. According to a hearing transcript, Jimmy Vacca, the bill's prime sponsor, said:
"I strongly believe the public has a right to know when decisions are made using algorithms, and they have a right to know how these decisions are made.When the Department of Education uses an algorithm to assign children to different high schools, and a child is assigned to their sixth choice, they and their family have a right to know how that algorithm determined that their child would get their sixth choice. They should not merely be told that they were assigned to a school because an algorithm made the most efficient allocation of school seats. What is considered to be most efficient? Who decided this? A mathematician, a computer programmer? "
Later, in written response to questions from Education Week, Vacca said he hoped his legislation would also bring transparency and improvements to the district's "inaccurate or erratic teacher evaluations," which he said "can occasionally spit out pretty different scores for the same teachers from year to year, or low scores for good teachers."
The AI institute provided a list of algorithms used in NYC agencies and elsewhere, some of which had egregiously failed. See Gary Rubinstein and Cathy O'Neil, for example, of the travesty that resulted in NYC's  absurd teacher evaluation system – and yet the resulting teacher ratings were printed in all the daily papers at Joel Klein’s encouragement.
Although many of the members appointed to this  Task force were independent experts in the field, (though none with a special interest in education) , the Mayor's office kept a tight hold on the proceedings, which by and large were not open to the public, and no minutes were kept. The co-chair, Jeff Thamkittikasem, director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations, explained that this was because they wanted to create a “safe space” for discussion. After much media attention and criticism,  including  a letter sent in March  by a number of advocacy groups, they did finally schedule two public sessions
Yet for months, the Mayor's office refused to provide the members with any examples of the proprietary software the city uses that they could analyze.  Thus the problem they were supposed to deal with -- the secrecy and unaccountable nature of these algorithms --plagued the operations of the Task Force itself. 
Unsurprisingly, the final report from the task force  released on Nov. 19, and was widely criticized, including by many of its members: 
“It’s a waste, really,” says Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute and a member of the task force. “This is a sad precedent.”
Ultimately, she says, the report, penned by city officials, “reflects the city’s view and disappointingly fails to leave out a lot of the dissenting views of task force members.” Members of the task force were given presentations on automated systems that Whittaker says “felt more like pitches or endorsements.” Efforts to make specific policy changes, like developing informational cards on algorithms, were scrapped, she says.
Instead, the city is going to hire an "algorithms officer" who may do little but protect the secrecy of the algorithms  and further obscure the methodology and discriminatory results of their use. The AI Institute tweeted, "During their recommendation process, the NYC ADS Task Force: X Didn't provide info about current ADS use in NYC X Ignored recommendations from experts & advocates X Failed to engage our community."

 In a scathing article in Fast Company, entitled The first effort to regulate AI was a spectacular failure, Albert Fox Cahn, a member who quit midstream, described how the city had stalled and stalled giving the Taskforce the data and algorithms they needed to make any informed judgements:
There were delays, and obfuscations, and then, by the spring of 2019, outright denials. It wasn’t because the data didn’t exist: The city had information on existing systems, including data that can help third parties understand if a model is being used in a context where it is likely to discriminate or have other adverse impacts. They even had model cards, which provide performance data, an explanation of intended use, and details on training and evaluation data, for dozens of different systems, all of which they kept to themselves. This is the sad reality of city politics. The City Council passed the task force into law to hold the administration accountable for its secretive use of algorithms, but that was the last thing the administration wanted.
 He describes the final report this way: “The document holds the air of a college paper hastily prepared by a student the day before the deadline. Of the document’s 36 pages, more than half is allocated to simply explaining the task force’s history, presenting the CVs of the members, and providing thanks to those groups that testified at task force hearings. The group’s recommendations, the entire point of its existence, are just eight pages long.”
Yet if the ADS Taskforce was a failure, it was positively brilliant compared to the results of the School Siting Taskforce, created by Local Law No. 168 in Sept. 2018. This law, sponsored by Council Members Gibson, Menchaca, Cumbo, Kallos, Holden, Lander, Levin and Rivera, was supposed to create  aninteragency task force” that would facilitate the identification of potential sites for schools by sharing and analyzing data on city-owned and privately-owned empty lots.

This is an important goal, as the current capital plan funds 57,000 seats but has sites for fewer than 17,000 and the process of locating sites is often so slow it can take the School Construction Authority up to twenty years to site a single school in overcrowded communities.  Partly as a result of this dysfunctional process, more than 500,000 students attend overcrowded schools, according to the DOE’s own metrics.
Yet the School Siting task force was run out of the Mayor’s office and met only twice, once in February and then held a public final meeting in July, just days before their final report was due. 
The only reason the final meeting was held in public was that the Committee on Open Government of the State of NY wrote an advisory opinion that the Taskforce meetings were subject to the Open Meetings law, as it was created by city law and had a specific task to fulfill. The City Comptroller Scott Stringer wrote a letter in support.  . I wrote about the final meeting here, which was primarily composed of a 15 minute power point by the SCA president, Lorraine Grillo, with not a single question asked by any of the members who attended.
When I finally obtained the “report” after FOILing it, I discovered it was only 1½ pages long and had no recommendations to improve the school siting process. Neither the City Council appointee nor any of the parent members of the Task Force had any input in the report, which was never publicly released.  And though there are two spreadsheets listing over 30,000 publicly and privately owned vacant sites, more than 22, 000 remain unanalyzed and unexamined.  Among the more than 7,000 sites the SCA did analyze, only two were identified as possible sites for schools, while hundreds were rejected for reasons that are incomprehensible. 
  • For example, in District 9 in the Bronx, four sites were removed for "small number of seats to site" yet the capital plan contains 952 seats funded but unsited.
  • Five potential sites were eliminated in District 15 in Brooklyn, with the explanation given that there are only “small number of seats to site” and/or “no sites needed” in the district, even though there are 1,396 district seats in the capital plan that are not yet sited. 
  • District 11 had 17 sites removed with the explanation offered of “small number of seats to site” while there are  2,124 seats funded in the district capital plan without sites.  
  • District 31 on Staten Island had 216 sites removed for “all seats sited” and 345 sites removed for “small number of seats to site”  yet there are 3,844 D31 seats in the capital plan without sites.
More examples of districts with unsited but funded seats for which sites were excluded for similar reasons are included in this preliminary analysis.
I along with other parent leaders, including Shino Tanikawa, who was a parent member appointed by the DOE, and Naila Rosario, President of NYC Kids PAC, wrote a letter to the Speaker Corey Johnson, to complain, with no response.
What lessons can be learned from these two failed Task forces?
Rather than halting the creation of all future Task Forces, the Speaker and Council Members should make sure that in future, the legislation should include the following provisions:
  • Any Task Force created by the Council should include sufficient representation from stakeholder groups as well as the City Council itself, and be chaired or co-chaired by a Council Member or staffer. 
  • From the outset, all there should be a vigorous public outreach and participation built into the law – so that as many good ideas as possible are gathered, and most importantly,  so that the Taskforce can help expand the constituency for change.
  • Finally, if the Mayor’s office denies critical information to a Task Force necessary for it to do its work, the Council  should consider using their subpoena power.