class size goes to court

After years of complaints, union sues city over class size dollars

UFT President Michael Mulgrew announces the union's lawsuit charging that the DOE misused funds allocated to reduce class size.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew announces the union's lawsuit. Behind Mulgrew are, from left to right, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, NAACP NY President Hazel Dukes, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Yolanda Morales, a plaintiff in the suit.

The city teachers union, along with a coalition of parents and advocacy groups, sued the Department of Education this morning, charging it with not spending allocated state money on reducing class sizes.

Since 2007, the state has allocated nearly $761 million for class size reduction, yet class sizes in schools across the city have risen over the past two years.

The lawsuit accuses the DOE of causing the class size increase by willfully misusing those funds.

“As far as we are concerned, this is deliberate,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a press conference at union headquarters this morning.

“New York City how has the highest class sizes in New York State,” Mulgrew said. “$760 million, for what?”

The lawsuit, filed this morning in the State Supreme Court in the Bronx, was brought by a coalition of parents, activist groups, the UFT, the New York chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation.

“The charges are without merit,” DOE Press Secretary David Cantor said.

Class size is one of six areas the state money is supposed to target as part of a legal agreement known as the Contracts for Excellence. The state has allocated the targeted funding since 2007 as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), which charged that the state was underfunding city schools.

(The UFT was not a plaintiff in the original CFE suit, although the union did file a brief in support of the plaintiffs and then-union president Randi Weingarten testified in the case.)

City officials and their critics have been arguing over how to explain rising class sizes in the city for several years. DOE officials have repeatedly said state class size reduction funds have been included in principals’ budgets, but the city’s wider budget cuts have caused principals to reduce teaching staff anyway.

Nevertheless, city officials argue the state funds have prevented class sizes from growing even more.

At the press conference today, Mulgrew disputed that argument, saying a pattern of class size increases began before the fiscal crisis that led to widespread budget reductions.

The city first reported an increase in class sizes last school year, when class sizes in all grades grew by fractions of a point, with the largest increases happening in early grades. This school year, the jump in class size across all grades was substantially bigger.

DOE officials sent out a table today highlighting that average class sizes in all grades except kindergarten have decreased since the 2001-02 school year, the year before Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the school system.

But critics say those numbers mask larger class size increases in many high needs schools. Even before the city’s average class sizes began to rise, a state report showed that more than half of city schools reported increases in either their class size or student-teacher ratios.

Mulgrew also criticized the DOE’s defense that principals have discretion to spend funds on Contracts for Excellence programs other than class size reduction, saying it is Chancellor Joel Klein’s responsibility to ensure the money is spent on this issue.

“You cannot pass the buck,” he said.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who joined the lawsuit’s plaintiffs at the press conference today, said the DOE’s approach to allocating state funds to schools without monitoring how they are used was unacceptable.

“It sounds like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” he said.

A DOE official said that schools with high class sizes are actively instructed to use the state funds on class size reduction, and once a principal commits in their budget to using the funds to hire new teachers, the DOE’s budget system won’t allow them to divert the funds elsewhere.

Plaintiffs said the suit is a last resort after years of lobbying the DOE to properly dedicate the money. Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, one of the plaintiffs, has called on the state to withhold Contracts for Excellence funds until the city commits specifically to reducing class sizes.

Data provided by the Department of Education
Average class sizes from 2001 to 2010. Table provided by the Department of Education.

UPDATE: This post originally incorrectly stated that Mayor Michael Bloomberg assumed control over the city schools during the 2001-02 school year. The original mayoral control law was passed in June 2002 and so took effect the 2002-03 school year; the post has been updated to correct the error.

Betsy DeVos

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Bellevue, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the location of the dinner.

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.