Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña recognize that their responsibility is to strengthen our public schools rather than close them. In this, they are far better than Michael Bloomberg, who actively encouraged the growth of privately-run charter schools that too often feature abusive disciplinary policies, suspend and push out students at high rates and increase segregation and inequities across the system.
Yet the programs the de Blasio administration is introducing in our schools are not likely to be effective in improving student outcomes. The only significant reform the chancellor has proposed for elementary schools is hiring second grade literacy coaches in 100 elementary schools in four districts — Districts 9 and 10 in the Bronx and Districts 17 and 32 in Brooklyn. This proposal has little research to support it, and in the early years of the Bloomberg administration, literacy coaches were hired for every elementary school, with few, if any, positive results.
At the same time, the number of students in grades K-3 in classes of 30 or more continues to increase, with more than 48,000 students in the early grades in classes this large, and more than 350,000 students overall in classes this large. Class size reduction is a research-proven reform, and the top choice of parents on the Department of Education’s (DOE) own surveys. Despite this, the chancellor has repeatedly stated that she doesn’t consider class size reduction a priority.
This summer, the city also rejected the recommendations of its own appointed task force to align the school capacity formula with smaller classes. Despite a promise to the state to focus its efforts on lowering class size on the 93 struggling Renewal schools, we found that 40 percent did not lower class size and over 60 percent still have classes of 30 or more.
Our schools are still underfunded, with the state reneging on its promise to provide the resources promised by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision, and the city proposing to add only enough dollars to provide schools with 91 percent of their Fair Student Funding. Meanwhile, the DOE is still spending far too much on wasteful contracts with testing companies and consultants, including paying the Scholastic Corporation for parent training at Renewal schools at a cost of $2,291 per hour.
School overcrowding is worsening, with more than 550,000 students crammed into overcrowded schools. Many schools have lost their art, music and science rooms, and special needs students attend class in hallways and closets. In the latest version of the capital plan, the DOE officials added funds for school construction, but still are only planning to build about 59 percent of the 83,000 seats they now estimate are needed. Meanwhile, our analysis suggests that more than 100,000 new seats will be required to alleviate overcrowding and keep up with enrollment growth. The gap will grow even larger if the mayor is successful in changing the zoning laws to encourage the creation of tens of thousands of new market-rate and affordable housing.
As to parent involvement: Along with Public Advocate Letitia James, we intervened in a lawsuit when the DOE decided to close School Leadership Teams to the public — with the excuse that these state-mandated decision-making bodies, made up of parents and staff at every school, are only “advisory.” Though we won the lawsuit, the city is now appealing. This refusal to grant parents any real authority via their School Leadership Teams reflects a larger problem: the DOE is still excessively wedded to top-down policymaking, with far too little respect for the views of the parents and other stakeholder groups whose input will be critical to improving our schools.
Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters, a New York City-based non-profit that advocates for the reduction in class sizes.
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