Thursday, April 29, 2021

"Talk out of School" podcast with Council Member Danny Dromm, chair of the Finance Committee

Former teacher and NYC Council Finance chair Danny Dromm has been a champion for student rights and quality public schools. 

He spoke to Leonie about his experiences with large class sizes in Queens, why he risked his job by coming out as gay at his school, why he decided to run for the Council and challenge an incumbent, and why he and the City Council have made reducing class size a priority for next year’s budget. 

Dromm also discussed his views on restorative justice in schools, testing, charter schools, and the rights of ultra-Orthodox children to receive a sound basic education.

Episode Notes


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The City Council has proposed $250 million for smaller classes next year!

 The NYC Council has now proposed in its preliminary budget response that DOE allocate $250M next year for class size reduction. This amount would be used to hire 2500 new teachers, which could then reduce class size in as many as 10,000 smaller classes citywide, since each new teacher and class creates smaller classes for every other class in the same grade and/or subject in each school.

See the press release here and below, and an updated fact sheet here.

Now we have to ensure that the Council negotiates hard and the Mayor and the Chancellor  agree that this funding is included in the final budget.  How can you help?

First, sign our (slightly revised) petition, if you haven't already.  

Second, if you're a member of a CEC, PTA or other community organization, please consider passing this resolution, urging that at least $250 million be spent on class size reduction next year; please also invite us to your next meeting to do a presentation on how and why smaller classes are so critical.  

If you're not a CEC member, please consider sharing the resolution with your district CEC, Community board or other organization and urge them to approve it as well.  


NYC Council proposes $250 million for class size reduction next year

In their Preliminary Budget Response, the NYC Council proposes that next year $250 million should be allocated to lowering class size, especially targeted towards struggling schools with vulnerable student populations. This would allow the Department of Education to hire an additional 2,500 teachers, which could lower class size in as many as 10,000 classrooms, as each new class that is formed can reduce class sizes in as many as four classes per school in the same grade and/or subject.

As the Council points out, when students return to full-time, in person learning, reducing class size will be imperative to provide additional learning support and help them catch up after a year of remote or blended learning.

The Council budget proposal also includes fully funding Fair Student Funding at about $605 million and $110 million to ensure that every public school has at least one full-time school counselor and one full-time social worker, as well as other programs and initiatives.

Council Member Danny Dromm, Chair of the Finance Committee said, “When I was a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 199, I knew that with my class of 35 plus I was simply unable to meet the needs of all my students.  The fact that NYC teachers and students have had to struggle for years with the huge class sizes that exist in our public schools is simply unconscionable.  These excessive class sizes were a primary reason that the State’s highest court in the CFE lawsuit concluded that NYC students were deprived of their right to a sound basic education. That’s why I am thrilled that this year, with the support of Speaker Johnson and my fellow Council members, and the additional billions in state and federal funds that our schools are due to receive,  we can finally start to make a significant change to these unconscionable conditions.  I truly hope the Mayor and the Chancellor take heed of our unique opportunity to lower class size and agree that it is finally time for a change.”

“Large class sizes have plagued our schools for far too long – creating problematic teacher to student ratios. Crowded classrooms hinder proper teacher instruction and prevent effective individualized attention, which children need. With this new commitment of long-overdue federal and state funding, we must ensure these resources are used to reduce class sizes, build additional instructional space and hire more teachers. Class size reductions lead to better student performance and academic outcomes. As we negotiate the budget, I will continue to advocate with Speaker Johnson and my Council colleagues for funding to meet the needs of our students and school communities,” said Council Member Mark Treyger, Chair of the Committee on Education.

Council Member Helen Rosenthal, Chair of the Subcommittee on Capital Budget said, “NYC class sizes citywide and in my district are far larger than the state average, and far larger than they should be to provide students with an equitable opportunity to learn.  Because of the new infusion of state and federal education aid, next year provides a unique opportunity to begin to transform our schools by creating the smaller classes that will provide students with the additional personalized feedback and support they will need to help them recover from more than a year of disrupted learning.  In the long run, to be able to lower class size citywide, we must also expand the capital budget for school construction to provide more classroom space, and the federal infrastructure bill proposed by President Biden contains funds to do just that.”

“For years, lowering class size has been the top priority of most NYC parents and teachers to improve our schools.  We finally have the resources from the state and the federal government to do what we’ve known for years would make all the difference in the world for our students.  Research shows that while smaller classes benefit all children, those who make the greatest gains are students of color, kids in poverty, those with special needs, and English Language Learners, who collectively make up the majority of students in our schools.  Yet according to DOE data from the 2019-2020, nearly a third of all NYC students were in classes of thirty or more.  I want to thank Speaker Johnson, Chairs Dromm, Treyger and Rosenthal and the rest of the City Council for stepping up to the plate and saying, there is no more time to waste.  Especially given all the losses our children have suffered over the last year,  they will need smaller classes next year more than ever before,” said Leonie Haimson, Executive Director of Class Size Matters.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Parents & community members protest closure of PS 88 in the Bronx; will they be forced to take DOE to court to stop this irrational proposal?

Student Hope board at PS 88      photo credit: Chauncy Young

Stories on the proposed closure of PS 88 have appeared in the Daily News and on Bronx News-12 TV.

DOE officials are trying to close a small, beloved K-3 zoned school in District 9 in the Bronx, PS 88, also called CES 88 or the Silverstein Little Sparrow School.  They want to leave the entire building empty and send the current students to PS 53, a 4th-5th grade school blocks away.  Why?

They claim that the school has lost enrollment this year, but so have 60% of all NYC public schools.  They claim the school is under-enrolled, but this ignores that the school utilization formula is aligned with class sizes larger than the state's highest court in the CFE lawsuit said were necessary for a sound basic education.  The DOE refused to revise the school utilization formula to allow for smaller classes, despite the fact that their own advisory Blue Book Working group urged them to do so.

Instead, PS 88's relatively low enrollment and available classroom space has meant that their students have been able to attend school in person five days a week during the pandemic, complete with small classes and social distancing,  in nearly ideal learning conditions especially for a high-poverty school.  If these kids are shunted off to PS 53, their class sizes will likely double and fewer kids will be able to attend in person, that is if the safety protocols require any social distancing in the fall.

Moreover, if DOE officials are really so concerned about the school's under-enrollment, all they have to do is add a 3K and/or a preK class to the school, neither of which it currently has  though strangely, they did insert preK classes into PS 53, sharing that building with 4th and 5th graders. 

Alternatively, they could also rezone the neighborhood, so that more children now attending the Walton Avenue School (09X294) and Lucero Elementary School (09X311) just a few blocks away would no longer have to be subjected to extreme overcrowding.  Currently those schools are at 125% and 111% utilization rates respectively, and both are forced to use trailers as classrooms.  

In short, the proposal to close PS 88 and leave this building empty seems arbitrary and capricious, and especially heedless during a pandemic.

Officials told the Daily News that the vote to close PS 88 has now been taken off the agenda for the Panel for Educational Policy April 28 meeting, to be considered during their May 19 meeting instead.  Many other co-locations are going ahead as before, despite the need for smaller classes and social distancing next year.

Meanwhile, the DOE continues to maintain it can legally close this zoned school without a vote of the Community Education Council in District 9, though according to state law, CECs have the final authority to approve or disapprove any changes in zoning lines.  The wholesale elimination of a zoned school surely can be seen as a radical revision of zoning lines.  

Parents successfully blocked the closure of the zoned PS 25 in Brooklyn when the DOE wanted to give the entire building to Success Academy charters, while refusing to put the proposal to a vote of CEC 16. Let's hope the DOE changes course before parents at PS 88 are forced to take this issue to court again. 

A video excerpt from Friday's press conference outside the school is below, with the comments of Husein Yatabarry, a former student at the school who is now a teacher and a board member of Neighborhood United.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Carranza's new gig with IXL Learning, and its defective and stressful product that DOE has paid millions for & subjected NYC students to use

In the NY Post today, Sue Edelman wrote an expose of an ed tech company, IXL Learning, that recently hired former DOE Chancellor Richard Carranza two weeks after he left office.  As I was quoted as saying, 

"I have no gripe about Carranza getting whatever job he can after the stressful experience he was put through in NYC. However, he shouldn’t be working to promote a product with such distressing impact on kids...No district should use it."

Why did I say that?  Check out the abysmal parent reviews of this product at Commonsense Media, including this comment:IXL is an absolutely disgusting method of teaching children.”  

Check out the even worse student reviews, like this one: "I think that IXL, is the worst site ever created. My teacher gives us lessons daily, and it's pure torture. Shouldn't this be illegal because it is considered child abuse?”  

Or this one: "Ixl causes kids a lot of stress and anxiety. it is a terrible learning website and i really don't recommend it. i come home crying everyday because of ixl. please, please save your children from this devil website! PLEASE SAVE YOURSELF! i have even thought about leaving my school so i wouldn't have to do it. i HATE it. so much."

I have never seen such terrible reviews for any ed tech product.  

IXL also gets very poor privacy ratings from Commonsense Media, earning a "WARNING" and a low grade of 69:

"The terms of IXL do not disclose whether users can interact with trusted or untrusted users on the service or whether a child or student's personal information can be displayed publicly in any way. ... the terms do not disclose whether IXL may sell data from school or parent users to third parties. ...the terms state that IXL and their third-party partners may use cookies and tracking technologies for the purpose of displaying advertisements on other websites or online services on their behalf. ... IXL works with third-party online advertising networks which use technology to recognize a user's browser or device and to collect information about their visit to IXL in order to provide customized content, advertising, and commercial messages to school, teacher or district administrative users and other non-student users on other websites or services, or on other devices they may use."

It's not even clear if the use of IXL complies with NY state's student privacy law, since DOE has failed to post the privacy provisions of its contract with the company, despite the fact that the state law and regs require this.

Nevertheless, the DOE has preloaded IXL on every one of the more than 400,000 Ipads purchased for NYC students, and has paid IXL about $5.6 million since 2011.  This amount greatly exceeds the maximum payments specified in the DOE's most recent contract with the company of $1,041,869, and thus may be "against procurement rules," as the NY Post article reports.

On its website, IXL has also made false claims that its programs have been "proven effective” and that research “has shown over and over that IXL produces real results.” 

Yet as an article in Hechinger Report points out, "IXL’s research simply compares state test scores in schools where more than 70 percent of students use their program with state test scores in other schools. This analysis ignores other initiatives happening in those schools and the characteristics of the teachers and students that might influence performance. ...IXL declined to comment on critiques that its studies weren’t adequately designed to make conclusions about the impact of its program on student test scores."

More wasted millions by DOE that could have been far better invested in helping kids learn, instead of subjecting them to a program that provokes unneeded anxiety and distress and that may violate their privacy.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Our new report finds DOE overspent by millions on charter school rent; and denied co-located public schools millions in matching funds for facility upgrades

A new Class Size Matters report,  DoE Overspending On Charter School Facility Costs and Underspending On Matching Funds To Public Schools revealed that the NYC Department of Education has overspent by many millions on rent for charter schools, while denying co-located public schools  millions of dollars of their legally-required matching funds for facility upgrades and repairs.  

This report was an update from our earlier 2019 report,  which found many of the same problems after analyzing DOE spending data that we had acquired through Freedom of Information Law requests and spreadsheets posted on the City Council website.

As a result of this earlier report, the NYC Comptroller’s office sent a letter to the Chancellor in January 2020,  asking him to respond to our findings.  When Deputy Chancellor Karin Goldmark replied several months later, she surprisingly did not refute any of our conclusions and actually confirmed some of our findings.  She also sent a new spreadsheet which purported to show DOE’s matching funds that contained data completely different from the data provided us earlier by DOE via FOIL and/or from the City Council website.

Yet the data in the new spreadsheets still revealed considerable shortfalls in matching funds nearly as egregious as we found in our original report.  The state passed a law in 2010, requiring that any spending undertaken by co-located charter schools to enhance their spaces be also offered to public schools that shared their buildings, in recognition that too often, public school students were subjected to separate but unequal conditions inside the same building. Nevertheless, we found that only four public schools out of 812 instances over six years had received funds equal to the amount spent by their co-located charter schools on facility upgrades, and not a single public school received the cumulative amount owed to them from FY 2014 to FY 2019. 

Instead, 127 co-located public schools were owed a total of $15.5 million over this six-year period.  A searchable database of schools that lacked matching funds is posted here.

Two of the five schools that were the most shortchanged were District 75 schools for seriously disabled children, despite the fact that staff and parents at these public schools reported considerable needs for upgrades and repair.  One of those D75 schools is the Mickey Mantle school in East Harlem that shares space with Success Academy Harlem 3 and lacked over $1.5 million in matching funds over six years.  According to the school’s  Building Condition Assessment Survey, as of last summer, the school had windows without gates, emergency exit doors without alarms, and a non-operational emergency lighting and sound system.

Air conditioning is especially important in D75 schools, as their schools are open all summer and many of their students have complex health issues that are exacerbated by the heat.  However Allister Johnson, a teacher and the UFT chapter leader at the Mickey Mantle school, told us that their air conditioners break down continually: “We cannot use the classrooms for summer school. We have fragile kids with breathing problems. It would be dangerous for them to be in classrooms where all the air conditioners are not working properly.” He added that the staff bathroom has leaked for at least six years which floods the floors of the stalls, and that the children’s bathroom lacks hot water on a regular basis.

Another school that lacked nearly a million dollars in renovation funds is Mosaic Preparatory Academy in the same building.  A parent and PTA officer at the school, Shaheem Lewis, reported that for years, the school had asked the School Construction Authority to fix the seats in the auditorium that were falling apart and to repair the floors of the stage and the gym that had become dangerously worn.

In response to a Daily News article on our findings, the DOE officials claimed that “some of the matching money may not arrive at public schools concurrently with the charter schools’ spending, and thus would not have been reflected in the spending reports analyzed by Class Size Matters.” 

Yet this statement ignores that the 2010 state law requires that the matching funds be provided to the public school within three months of the charter school’s expenditures, and our report found millions of dollars missing in cumulative matching funds over a period of six years. 

According to the DOE spreadsheets, officials claimed several reasons for not matching these funds,  including that these funds were not necessary if the charter school expenditures were made on air-conditioners, repainting and/or reflooring projects.  DOE repeated this claim to WCBS-TV, which aired a segment on our report, focused on the lack of payments to Mosaic Prep:

 “…data shows from 2014 to 2019, Success Academy Harlem East received about $929,000 in renovation funding not matched by the Department of Education…the DOE says $913,000 of those expenditures, including the cost of new AC units, are exempt.”

Yet as our report pointed out, charter school spending on air conditioners as well as repainting and reflooring are specifically cited   Chancellors regulations A-190  as triggering matching funds.

In 2014, another change was made to state law requiring that charter schools be given space within NYC public school buildings or that DOE help pay for their rent in private spaces.  Yet even given the mandate in this law, we found that that the DOE has been overspending on charter school rental payments by millions of dollars over many years. 

According to our analysis, in FY 2019, the DOE overspent by $21 million on lease subsidies for 39 charter schools by paying them more than their base rents.  We also found that DOE has been leasing eight buildings directly for charter schools, rather than asking them to rent the buildings themselves, and thus has made itself ineligible to receive an estimated $8 million in state reimbursement in FY 2020 alone. 

The DOE payments for charter school lease subsidies also increased sharply by 41% from FY 2019 to FY 2020.  In many cases, this was triggered by ballooning charter school rent that needs further explanation. For example, the rent skyrocketed at all three sites that housed Hebrew Language Academy Charter Schools: at the school in Manhattan, the rent increased from approximately $148,000 to $2.9 million in one year; while more than doubling at one site in in Brooklyn from  $931,000 to $2.5 million and increasing by more than 13 times at another Brooklyn site from just over $80,000 to $1.06 million.

DOE has also been paying rental subsidies for eight charter schools whose Charter Management Organization or affiliated organization owns their own space, at a cost of $11.6 million in FY 2020.  In some of these cases, the rents of these charter schools also grew dramatically, raising questions about whether these rents were fairly assessed or were hiked for the purpose of self-dealing.

In one  especially startling example, we found that the rent for the two Success Academy charter schools housed at Hudson Yards increased from approximately $793,000 to over $3.4 million – more than quadrupling – despite the fact that the space is owned by the Success Charter Management Organization. (The picture of that facility is above, from the cover of the report.) This increase in rent allowed Success to charge the DOE over $3 million in rental subsidies for those two schools alone in FY 2020.

To address these concerns, we’re proposing that DOE regularly post online all funds spent by co-located charter on facility upgrades within three months of these expenditures, and the data provided to principals and :School Leadership Teams at the public schools that share their buildings.  These reports should include any matching funds DOE has provided to the public schools or intends to provide in the future, along with the time frame. If the DOE determines that any of these charter expenses are exempted from triggering matching funds, the reasons for this exemption should be clearly described, along with a citation from the law or the regulations that allow for the exclusion.

The City Comptroller’s office should also audit all DOE spending on matching funds and if our findings of shortfalls are confirmed, demand that the DOE contribute the full amounts to the co-located public schools that have been denied their proper share of funds for renovation and upgrades over the last six years.   

The City Comptroller should also analyze whether the DOE actually did overspend on rental assistance to charter schools by $21 million in 2019, as the spreadsheets indicate.  If so, the DOE should demand that these charter schools reimburse those funds in future years or subtract the amounts from future payments. The Comptroller should also annually analyze whether the rents charged to charter schools are fairly assessed, especially those whose buildings are owned by their CMOs or other allied organizations, to ensure that these schools and their landlords are not gouging the city by charging more than they would otherwise.  

Finally, the Legislature should eliminate any obligation on the part of the city to require that charter schools be given space in public schools or provide rental assistance. The NYC Department of Education is the only district in the state and indeed in the nation required to help pay rent to charter schools, and it is simply unfair to burden them with this mandate. especially given the poor record of many charter schools in enrolling and retaining high needs students. In FY 2020, this legal mandate cost taxpayers nearly $108 million, an amount that the Office of Management has projected will increase to $160 million by FY 2022, as charter schools continue to expand in enrollment and the per-student subsidy for rent rises over time.