Saturday, January 28, 2023

Hearings on DOE enrollment/admissions policies: testimony from Deputy Chancellor Weisberg, Jenn Choi, and me

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, the City Council Education Committee held hearings on the DOE's revamped admissions policies.  The parents and advocates who testified as well as the Council Members were divided.  Some said that the new policies that removed academic screens from many middle schools, while basing admissions in selective high schools on a lottery after separating students in four tiers determined by their grades in 7th grade, cheats academically advanced students of the challenges they need to achieve their best.  Other parents and advocates were disappointed that the administration expanded the gifted programs in elementary schools, and in too many middle and high schools, academic screens remain and clearly have a discriminatory and segregating impact. The Council Members also seemed split on whether the current system is equitable and fair.

Council Members Alexa Aviles and Shekar Krishnan questioned Deputy Chancellor Weisberg if the DOE would alter any of their admissions/enrollment policies to more evenly distribute students across schools, to lessen the overcrowding at schools over 100% so they will be able to meet the class size goals in the new state law.  Sadly, he said  no; and he argued that more evenly distributing students across schools would depend on principals at underutilized schools to make their schools more attractive to parents. 

My testimony (see below) dealt  with how how it is DOE's responsibility to ensure that all students and schools can provide a quality education and meet the class size goals in the law.  I also point out that by more evenly distributing students, it will help underutilized and thus underfunded schools provide the staffing and programs their students need.  Chalkbeat recently ran a heartbreaking piece on principal in the Bronx, desperately trying to avoid excessing teachers, by spending days distributing flyers and producing a video to post on Instagram to recruit more students and thus receive more funding, though he was ultimately unsuccessful.  

Why should any principal have to spend their time marketing their schools; isn't it the responsibility of the DOE to ensure that every school has the resources it needs to provide a quality education?  If enrollment was more equally distributed, many schools would likely become more diverse as well, as the most underutilized schools are those that tend to have the highest percentages of Black and Hispanic students.

Weisberg repeatedly insisted they have a plan to meet the goals in the plan, without producing any evidence for that claim, though at times he seemed to limit his comments that they will meet the goals in the first year.  Because of enrollment decline, it is likely that the DOE will be able to make the first year goals for 20% of classes meeting the new class size caps without any effort , and maybe even the second year goals of 40%, if they don't continue cutting school budgets and enrollment continues to fall. 

But it is very unlikely that the class size goals in the 3rd to 5th years in the law can be achieved, without a plan to create enough space, either through aggressive expansion of the capital plan, and/or efforts to more evenly distribute students across schools, by rezoning elementary and capping enrollment severely overcrowded middle and high school enrollment at lower levels. 

In my testimony I also explain how the current "school choice" policies with parents applying to up to ten schools and the schools essentially deciding who to admit are based upon a failed free-market model from the Bloomberg years, in that the best schools will "win" by attracting more students, and the others would be allowed to wither and die, with other new public schools or charter schools put in their place. 

I found the testimony of parents of students with disabilities also quite affecting as to the hurdles their children face in being admitted to high schools that will help them reach their full potential.  Discrimination comes in many forms, and below my testimony is that of Jenn Choi, the mother of a student with special needs who also works at Special Support Services, which advises parents on how to navigate the labyrinthine and often very frustrating special education system in the NYC public schools.

Mayor Adams preliminary education budget - bare bones & non-transparent

January 13, 2023

Yesterday, the Mayor released his preliminary budget for next year.  DOE as a whole would be cut by another $800 million, over and above a cut of an additional $176 million made in November.  Though more than $500 million of these reductions appear to relate to the decision to halt the further expansion of 3K (or as the budget document calls it, “3K right-sizing”), there are other budget lines so ambiguous as to be impossible to interpret.  I went over several of the budget docs with an education finance expert, and she was as confused as I was about some of the bullet points it contained.  You can check out the budget docs yourself,  if you are so inclined.

For example, there is a budget line in the Program to Eliminate the Gap (or PEG) of  DOE “savings” of nearly $100 million next year, added to savings of $40 million this year, entitled “Vaccine mandate school support funds re-estimate” and described this way: “Less than anticipated spending for schools addressing staffing changes related to vaccination mandate.”  What does that mean?

If this refers to schools losing positions due to staffers refusing to be vaccinated, shouldn’t schools be allowed to hire new staff to replace them?  And why are savings of nearly $100 million anticipated for next year, when presumably all the school staff who refused to be vaccinated have already left?

Here is an excerpt from the Daily News article, further showing the administration’s troubling and apparently purposeful lack of clarity:

“[Adams] blueprint shows 2024 spending for the Education Department dropping … However, in a briefing with reporters, Adams budget advisers, who only spoke on condition of anonymity, said the 2024 figures for most agencies should be taken with a grain of salt because they may not include federal grants that are baked in later on.”

Indeed, the usual black hole of the DOE budget has been made even darker by the fact that this administration claims they can move around federal money as they like, without any transparency. The only mention of schools in their brief budget summary is an increase of $47.5 million for “enhancing security measures to protect students at all Department of Education schools” – apparently  to install door locking mechanisms and cameras.  I see no mention in any of the budget documents of funding allocated for any of the other recent promises made by DOE, including adding 400 new special ed PreK seats, or the additional $12 million to support schools dealing with thousands of new migrant students.

Highlighted by many reporters is how the Mayor and his aides assured them that their original plan to make additional  cuts of $80 million to schools’  Fair Student Funding would not be imposed.  The administration also claimed that the $800 million in additional cuts they are proposing to DOE will not affect any existing teacher positions.  And  yet they made this exact same promise to the City Council  last year, and we all know how those cuts forced schools to excess hundreds of teachers, and/or found themselves unable to replace scores of teachers who had retired or quit.  As a result, class sizes increased substantially  in most schools, and many  lost teacher aides and essential programs like  art or music.

Yesterday, we re-ran the numbers on the Galaxy cuts to schools for this year, and the total net cuts at this point compared to last year are now at $823 million.  Fully 86% of schools have experienced cuts to their budgets totaling $893 million, averaging about $655,000 each.  To see how much funding your school has lost, you can check out the spreadsheet linked to on our website here.  The Comptroller’s figures, which have been widely cited by reporters and officials, only reflect the cuts to Fair Student Funding, NOT the cuts to entire school budgets, which have been far more extensive.

The fact that the city has no apparent plans to increase school budgets next year is even more unacceptable, given how they are due to receive about $600M in additional Foundation funds from the state, in what is slated to be the final increase of the CFE settlement

Every single dollar of that additional $600 million should go to schools to help them restore and add more positions, especially as the new state class size law comes into effect next fall, which requires them to start lowering class size. Already, according to the State Comptroller, the DOE has lost  4,815 positions since June 2020, and yet  according to a staffing budget document just released, the DOE is not planning to add a single additional teacher through at least June 2025.

In any case,  in their response to this preliminary budget, the City Council should not merely oppose these additional cuts but should fight to reverse the cuts already made to schools and substantially increase their funding, to ensure that the teaching positions already lost are restored and augmented, so that schools can start lowering class size.  As I am quoted in Gothamist, the administration should be “boosting school budgets,” particularly as the class size law is set to go into effect.

Council Members should also insist on far more budget clarity, so that the DOE include additional budget lines (called Units of Appropriation) that reflect actual dollars to be allocated to schools, making it less likely that they, along with some reporters, will be deceived again about what their proposed budget means when it comes to the quality of education that students receive every day in our schools.