Gotham Gazette

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Money, Class Size and Mayoral Politics

Having once told voters to judge him on his handling of education in the city, Mayor Michael Bloomberg reacted jubilantly to the news on May 18 that reading scores for the city’s fourth graders had risen sharply this year. Of the students taking the test in 2005, almost 60 percent met state standards, an increase of about 10 percent over last year.

But amid the good news, a stubborn fact remains: Kids in New York City still do far worse on this type of exam than students elsewhere in the state. Statewide, 70 percent of fourth graders meet the standards.

Many of those looking to close that discrepancy -- or “achievement gap” -- see two, sometimes related solutions: Give the city schools more money and use a lot of that money to decrease class size. Both issues have emerged as hot topics in this year’s mayoral race.

The Funding Issue

The fight for more state funding for city schools dates at least back to the Dinkins administration when the Campaign for Fiscal Equity filed suit, seeking more funding for city schools. Despite numerous court rulings in the city’s favor, New York City public schools have not yet seen any of the billions of extra dollars the court ruled they should receive -- and thanks to court appeals by Governor George Pataki they are not likely to any time soon.

Bloomberg has made his position on this issue clear. He supports the court ruling that city schools get billions more. But he does not want the city to pay a single additional cent.

The courts did not address the question of how much of any new funding would come from the state and how much from the city, declaring that such decisions belong with the legislative branch, not the judiciary. But, Bloomberg has argued, any increase at all in city education spending would require cuts in other areas that "would harm the very children this lawsuit is designed to help." Michael Cardoza, the Bloomberg administration's corporation counsel, has even said that the city would reject any additional state funds if it had to chip in part of the settlement. And the mayor's proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 does not assume any big influx of state funds for education or any major additional city expense to match it.

His opponents clearly see him as vulnerable on education in general, and this funding case in particular. But they are also attacking each other.

In April, Fernando Ferrer proposed a tax of about a half a cent on sales of an average share of stock. Ferrer anticipated this would raise about $1 billion –- or, he said, enough to cover the city’s share of any negotiated settlement between city, state and courts in the CFE case. It makes sense to require Wall Street to contribute to education, the former Bronx borough president said, because “they are the industry that benefits most in seeing that New York’s children are educated to the highest of standards.”

Even though a similar, and far larger, tax existed in New York City until 1981, virtually everybody criticized Ferrer's proposal. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose support would probably be needed for such a tax to be enacted, said the idea was dead. Bloomberg called it a ``job-killing'' plan, and Representative Anthony Weiner, also running for mayor, termed it ``a mind-bogglingly bad idea.''

For her part, C. Virginia Fields says it is far too soon to be talking about how much the city will pay. “We need to have a much more aggressive position taken by the mayor of this city with the governor and the state legislature,” she says. The mayor needs to show the “kind of passion” he has exhibited on the West Side stadium and push the governor to provide “what’s right for the children of New York City."

Council Speaker Gifford Miller has proposed an extension of a tax surcharge on those earning more than $500,000 a year.

Weiner’s plan to provide funding for city schools calls for a tax on millionaires and cuts in some of Bloomberg’s pet education programs, such as paid parent coordinators in every school and the Leadership Academy, which trains prospective school principals.

The Class Size Debate

If and when the city gets any additional money, many parents, teachers and others want it to go toward reducing the number of students in city classrooms, particularly in the elementary school grades.

Just how much emphasis to put on cutting class size has been a key part of the educational debate in the city.

Advocates, such as the organization Class Size Matters, believe that no other single improvement can do as much to boost achievement as cutting class size. According to Class Size Matters, average class size in kindergarten through third grade in New York City is 22, down from 25 several years ago. But the group says that a quarter of students in the early elementary grades remain in classes with more than 25 children. This compares with an average class size of 20 in New York State as a whole. Class sizes become progressively large as children advance through public school, with high school classes in the city typically 34 students.

Led by Miller, members of the City Council have proposed reducing the average class size to 17 in early elementary grades, 20 in grades four and five, and 23 in middle school. At a mayoral candidates forum on education, Miller said that smaller class size is one of the things “that we know works” in improving education.

The other Democratic candidates express similar beliefs.

“Smaller class sizes is part of my overall list of things that we need to address,“ Fields says, along with better pay for teachers, expanded high school vocational programs, identifying students with possible problems at an early age and increasing the number of guidance counselors.

Chiding the mayor for not making overcrowding and class size a priority, Ferrer said, “Smaller classes mean our kids can get the individual attention they needed and deserve…Smaller classes work”

Not surprisingly, the teachers union has supported effort to reduce class size. “Lowering class sizes is one of the most basic, foundational reforms we can do to improve student achievement,” UFT President Randi Weingarten, said at a rally earlier this month, adding that some of the money in the court case must go toward reducing class size rather than being “squandered.”

The Bloomberg administration does not seem to agree. A 2003 audit by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi found the city did not create the number of new classrooms it was supposed to, despite being given money for that purpose. The mayor’s proposed 2006 budget includes increases in funding -– particularly for the mayor’s cherished program to create more small schools -– but has no additional money to cut class size. And in its plan for a sound, basic education, given to the courts last summer, the city said it would focus on leadership training, secondary school reform, early childhood education and special education and instruction for non-English speakers. The plan does not mention class size as a priority.

The Department of Education denies it ignores class size. Stephen Morello, communications director for Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, told the Sun recently that the administration already had cut class size and that reducing it further “is a key part of the city's five-year capital plan and its strategy for spending the CFE operating funds.”

But advocates, remaining skeptical, want to force the city to deal with class size. Class Size Matters has launched a drive to put on the November ballot a measure calling for the city to spend at least 25 percent of any CFE money on bringing down class size in the city to a level comparable to that in the rest of the state.

In 2003, advocates collected more than 114,000 signatures in support of a ballot proposal on class size. But Bloomberg managed to quash the vote. Since the mayor has his own ideas for charter reform measures , he could well bump the class size question off the ballot again this year, regardless of how many signatures advocates collect.




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