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Poor Grades for a School ‘Contract’

by Gail Robinson, Jul 16, 2007
 

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As the fight to get more state money for New York City public schools wended its way through the courts for more than a decade, educators, parents, politicians and others occasionally stopped to fantasize: What would we do with all that money?

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Now, with the 14-year-suit having reached a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion and the city set to receive an additional $3.2 billion from the state over the next four years, New Yorkers are learning the answer to that question, and some education activists do not like it. Complaining that they have been shut out of the process, many want the city to spend more to reduce class size and improve middle schools – and less on testing and charter schools. The dispute, aired at hearings throughout the city in early July, is about money to be sure, but it also concerns setting priorities for the nation’s largest school system and how success – or failure – should be measured.

THE MONEY

The additional funds signal the end of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity suit brought in the 1990s. Under the state system of funding education, it charged, New York City schools did not have enough resources to provide public school students with the “sound, basic education” they are guaranteed under New York’s constitution. With the state’s highest court issuing its final ruling in the case late last year and a new governor in Albany, the state earlier this year agreed to give the city’s Department of Education an additional $700 million in state education funds for fiscal year 2008. This represents New York City’s share of the almost $1.8 billion hike in state education aid proposed by Governor Eliot Spitzer and approved by the legislature.

SPENDING IT

The largest chunk of the new state funds for New York City – $334 million – will go toward raises and fringe benefits approved in recent contracts with teachers and other school employees. The Department of Education will spend a bit more than $100 million on special education, another $213 million on pre-kindergarten programs and charter schools, and almost $150 million to help defray increased operating costs, particularly rising energy expenses.

But the bulk of the controversy surrounds the remaining $228 million. The state legislation dictates that districts use some of the new funding to finance improvements thought to boost student achievement: smaller class sizes, more learning time for students, full-day pre-kindergarten programs, efforts to improve teacher quality and restructuring of middle schools and high schools.

To receive this money -- $228 million in the city’s case – the Department of Education has had to prepare so-called Contracts for Excellence describing how they would spend it. According to those contracts, the city will use about half the money to cut class size, with the remaining funds divided among the other four areas.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced this plan on July 5 – about a week after school had closed for the summer and in the middle of a lazy week interrupted by the Fourth of July holiday. The department scheduled hearings in each of the five boroughs for the following week. By July 15, a revised plan would be sent to the state Board of Regents for approval.

The summer doldrums did not prevent a quick – and generally critical reaction – to the city’s plan. In a statement, Geri Palast, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity charged that the city’s contract “raises more questions than it answers” and “lacks the necessary specificity and transparency to understand where and how the money will be spent.”

DEBATING THE PLAN

The controversy over the contracts echoes many other disputes that have surrounded public education in New York City since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the school system in 2002 and installed the Department of Education in the Tweed Courthouse.

Parental Involvement

The state legislature did not pass the law setting up the system and authorizing the funds until April, Excellence Inside Schools has reported. This gave the so-called “educrats” with offices in the Tweed Courthouse little time to devise a plan and put it out for public scrutiny and comment.

But that did not stop many critics from assailing the midsummer hearings. “The fact that these hearings are being held with no outreach to parents and community members, in the dead of summer, is indicative of tepid commitment of our Department of Education to the spirit of CFE,” City Councilmember Robert Jackson, the original plaintiff in the suit, said in testimony. While the hearings “technically comply” with state requirements, “they are implemented in such a way as to actively discourage widespread parental and community input,” he said.

At the Brooklyn hearing, held in a hot auditorium with a faulty sound system often overpowered by crying youngsters in the back (the Spanish translator was particularly difficult to hear), several speakers accused the department of simply going through the motions. “The only reason you’re having this hearing is it’s a required part of the Department of Education receiving the money,” the mother of a fifth grader complained.

The Department of Education representatives, some more attentive than others, did not respond to comments from the audience.

In the Bronx hearing, held on a sweltering Monday night, Ronn Jordan turned to sarcasm. “Good job on having this hearing without giving parents any notice,” he told the education department officials. “Maybe next month you could have it in the middle of the night at an undisclosed location because I think you got too many parents here.

To some parents and teachers, the hearings were another indication of what many see as the Department of Education’s high-handed ways. While the administration has installed parent coordinators in every school and set up a variety of advisory panels, critics say that the panels tends to be toothless, and Tweed prefers to get reactions after it has made a decision – rather than taking the opinions of parents, students and teachers into account when formulating policy. The issue erupted earlier this year when the department, without consulting parents, altered city school bus routes, leaving many students with long waits or no transportation at all on some of the coldest mornings of the year. In the uproar that followed, the administration created the job of chief family engagement officer, and appointed Brooklyn parent and education activist Martine Guerrier to the post.

But many remain suspicions. Surveying the education officials, who he described as “Ivy League thoroughbreds with business and management degrees,” teacher Jeff Sorkin told the Brooklyn hearing the “plan is one again dictated by us by the Department of Education.”

Class Size

The city proposes adding 1,300 teachers and 400 new classes at a cost of $106 million next year. While that sounds like a lot of teachers, critics calculated it would cut class size by just a third of a student per room in the lowest grades.

At the July hearings, teachers describe how hard it is to deal with dozens of students at a time. Julie Woodward, a high school music teacher in the Bronx, cited classes with 50 teenagers, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “The chancellor shows no concern for the differences that you have to account for as a teacher. We’re talking 9th grade through 12th grade, special ed, regular ed, hearing impaired, all in the same class,” she said, adding that Klein “continues to direct us to teach everybody equally and demands that we justify personal attention to every kids’ needs. This is outrageous and it’s impossible.” A Brooklyn middle-school Spanish teacher described the challenges of helping a class of 39 students “try to grasp an unfamiliar language….It is not fair to them.”

“I don’t understand why Tweed cannot listen to teachers,” Dianne Stillman, an English teacher from John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, said. “What is so difficult? Teachers have been telling you in high schools, give me 20 students in a class and I can reach the stars. What is so difficult about that?”

Bloomberg and his chancellor have repeatedly downplayed the role that smaller classes play in improving student performance. The administration successfully blocked a question on reducing class size from getting on the ballot, and in a proposal to improve education submitted to the courts in 2005, did not mention reducing class size. Klein has said repeatedly that students are better off in a large class with a good teacher than in a small class with a mediocre one. Class size only emerged in the Contract for Excellence because many principals pushed for it, according to the New York Sun.

Middle Schools

With grades six through eight generally considered the weakest link in the education system, many advocates urged that more money be focused in middle schools. Although the new budgeting system for city schools, called Fair Student Funding, is supposed to provide extra money to needy students and schools, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice say that many of the city’s worst performing middle schools will not see any additional funds. In these schools, a third or less of students meet the state standard for reading.

The advocates would like the Contracts for Excellence to redress this, putting more money into failing middle schools.

The fight over aid to middle schools is likely to receive increased attention later this year when a task force, appointed by the City Council and headed by New York University educator Pedro Noguera releases its recommendation on improving education for the city’s adolescents.

Setting Priorities

Speakers at the hearings also faulted the contracts for not spending more money on the city’s poorest and worst performing schools, on pre-kindergarten programs and on English language learners. And along with criticizing the plan for not spending in certain areas, some critics assailed it for what it does spend. In her testimony at the Bronx hearing, Randi Weingarten, president of the city’s United Federation of Teachers, called the proposal “a plan to fund the city’s own agenda.” For example, she noted, it sets aside $42 million for new testing.

The contracts also include money for publicly funded but privately run charter schools – schools touted by Bloomberg and Klein as a means to offer parents and students more choice. But Michael Rebell, a lead lawyer for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, questioned the way these schools were treated. “Why should money going to charter schools be less accountable than money going to public schools,” he asked the Sun.

THE ACCOUNTABILITY QUESTION

Numerous critics charged the outline for spending was vague, making it difficult to hold the educators responsible for it. “The proposal presented fails to provide any particulars regarding when or where new class space and new teachers will be added. There are no construction plans, timetables, or identification of which schools will receive more classrooms and teachers,” Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Queen, chair of the Assembly Education committee has said.

Paul Egan, District 11 representative for the UFT, found the vagueness of the proposal ironic for a system “that’s asking for accountability from teachers, for a system that’s asking for accountability from specific data.” On class size for example, the plan calls for additional classrooms and teachers and sets out some general parameters but does not detail where the additional teachers will go. It does not detail how the city will assess whether the program has been successfully implemented and what plan, if any, Tweed has to further reduce class size in the years ahead.

Under the state law, the city is supposed to submit a five-year plan to reduce the number of students in each city classroom, according to Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters. But, she said, the contracts fail to do that and offer “no real benchmarks, no goals, no timetables, not enough resources to the schools that need them most, and not enough space.”

And so some speakers urged the state to do for the Department of Education what the department proposes to do for principals, teachers and students: hold it accountable.

“No one wants the mayor and chancellor to fail in their efforts to improve our schools,” Patrick Sullivan, who was representing Borough President Scott Stringer, told the Manhattan hearing. “However, if they continue their refusal to plan for and spend new state funding as intended, the state must hold them accountable.”

Assemblymember Jim Brennan, who told the panel in Brooklyn he helped write the law creating the Contracts for Excellence, called on the department officials to heed the comments aired throughout the evening. And, he said, he would urge the state education department to make sure they do just that.

 




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