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A Decisive Year for NYC’s Embattled Public Schools

Leonie Haimson Oct 8, 2015

With 1.1 million students in over 1,800 schools, New York City’s public school system is the largest in the nation. And for more than a decade it has been a special target of self-styled “reformers” — many with ties to Wall Street and the corporate world — who have sought to impose a rigid, top-down model of education that ignores the real needs of students while disempowering parents and communities.

Corporate-style education reform has bred increasing resistance. In many ways, this year will be decisive for New York City’s embattled public schools. We have a new state education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, a former superintendent from Florida, who took office on July 1. With more than 220,000 students who opted out of standardized state exams last year, Elia must figure out how to address the massive disaffection of parents with the current state policies. Though the number of kids opting out was much lower here in the city, the number of opt-outs was still three times larger than the year before. 

Opposition to the Common Core standards, curriculum and high-stakes tests is rapidly growing among both parents and educators, because of the resources and time they consume, the stress they cause kids and the way in which they reduce real learning to rote test prep and worksheets. Initially, Elia took a hard line on the issue, saying she thought teachers who encouraged opting out were “unethical” and making vague threats that schools with high numbers of opt-outs could lose funding. More recently, she has backtracked and moderated her tone after her comments prompted a backlash. 

Other issues Elia will be pressed to address include the failure of the state to enforce a 2010 law that requires charter schools to serve equal numbers of high-needs students as public schools before they are renewed or allowed to expand, and the state’s refusal to implement a 2014 law to protect student privacy, which grew out of the battle against the multi-state data sharing project called inBloom.

Fariña & De Blasio

At the same time, Chancellor Carmen Fariña will be beginning her second full year at the helm of the city’s public schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio and the chancellor have introduced many important reforms, including expanding pre-K education to all 4-year-olds and providing wraparound services at many struggling schools — called the “Renewal” schools — at risk of being closed by the state. More recently, in a well-publicized speech, the mayor announced plans to add second grade reading specialists and new classes in algebra and computer coding and on the advanced placement level. 

Both the mayor and chancellor claim to be more responsive to parents’ input than the previous administration, and in a recent press release, the chancellor said, “The more we listen to the feedback of students, parents and teachers, the better our schools are going to be.” Yet there is rising discontent among many parents with their leadership that could threaten de Blasio’s attempt to retain mayoral control. Why?

Smaller classes are New York City parents’ top priority for their children’s schools. This has been the case every year since 2007, when the Department of Education parent survey was first conducted — that is, until last year, when the question was deleted. Yet class sizes are far too large — and in the early grades are larger than at any time in the last 15 years. More than 350,000 students were in classes of 30 or more students last year. The chancellor has dismissed concerns about class size in many town hall meetings and in testimony before the City Council. A letter sent by 73 professors of education and psychology last fall, emphasizing the importance of smaller classes to improve the quality of education and urging her to reduce class size, went unanswered. 

Even in the 94 Renewal schools, Fariña has so far refused to reduce class size, and more than half had sizes of 30 or more students last year. 

Misused Funds

The administration is spending an estimated $1.6 million per Renewal school that could have been used to hire an additional 25 teachers in each to reduce class size. Instead, the funds are being used to lengthen the school day and add wraparound services, including counseling, medical care and other unspecified “customized supports” while creating new levels of bureaucracy to oversee these schools and crunch data. Many of the students in these schools are English language learners and students with special needs, years behind grade level. Without reducing class size to more appropriate levels, no amount of data analysis, longer hours or wraparound services can provide these students with the personalized instruction and feedback they need to succeed.

The space crunch in our schools continues unabated, with nearly half a million students attending severely overcrowded schools. The rapid expansion of pre-K has made a serious problem worse, and last year, we found that more than 11,800 pre-K seats were located in 254 schools that were above 100 percent utilization, according to DOE figures. The capital plan for school construction is already vastly underfunded, and though the administration claims to be removing the trailers that currently house thousands of students, the plan does not allocate a single dollar to replace their seats. In fact, trailers were still being added to schools in Queens this fall. 

The mayor’s plan to build 200,000 affordable housing units and an additional 160,000 market-rate units over the next 10 years will create the need for even more school seats. Yet he has developed no plan to ensure that the schools in these neighborhoods will not become even more overcrowded. Many parent leaders, along with Public Advocate Letitia James and 22 members of the City Council, sent a letter to the chancellor and the mayor in June, urging them to create a commission to improve school planning and to double the seats in the capital plan. So far, neither the chancellor nor the mayor has responded.

Yet parents are not willing to sit back and have their concerns ignored — whether on class size, school overcrowding or student privacy. The widespread protests that caused the state to change the law on student privacy in 2014 and the growing opt-out movement that led to 20 percent of the students opting out of state exams last year show that if sufficiently provoked, parents will fight to ensure that their children receive the education they deserve. Parent resistance will continue to grow until policymakers hear our voices, and start focusing on what really makes a real difference in the learning conditions of our children. 

Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters.

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