Thu, Oct 7, 2010
City took money for nothing as it got aid to cut class sizes, OK'ed packing more students together
Back in 2007, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer achieved a historic multibillion-dollar increase in state aid to New York City schools.
The centerpiece of the Spitzer plan, known as the Contract for Excellence, required our city's school system to use much of that additional money to reduce class size in all grades by 2012.
But earlier this year, state Education Commissioner David Steiner quietly gave Schools Chancellor Joel Klein permission to change the city's "class-size reduction plan" - and actually increase class size.
In a Feb. 23 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily News, Steiner wrote: "Staff has completed the review of your proposed 2009-2010 School Year Contract for Excellence Contract and Class Size Reduction Plan, and they advise me that the current economic climate necessitates changes to your Class Size Reduction Plan."
Steiner not only approved the city's freezing of its class-size reduction plan last year, he gave Klein the green light to increase class size this year if state aid was reduced. His letter required only that the average number of students in 75 of the city lowest-performing schools be expanded "by no more than 50 percent of the Citywide average increase."
The commissioner's decision has never been publicly announced, even though the 2007 legislation and his agency's regulations require that proposed amendments to the Contract for Excellence be publicly posted by a school district within 48 hours of submission.
Even some members of the state Board of Regents were surprised to learn of Steiner's action.
"I am very disappointed that the state is not doing its part to ensure that the [city] Department of Education complies with its original contract," said Betty Rosa, a state regent from the Bronx.
"The public has been excluded from this process as it unfolded," said Geri Palast, director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the nonprofit group that spearheaded decades of court challenges against Albany's unequal school- funding formula.
Palast noted that the 2007 state law stipulated that the city's Contract for Excellence "be developed through a public process, in consultation with parents ... teachers, administrators."
State and city education officials defended the need to adjust their plans given the tough financial times.
"This is not a waiver but rather a proactive step to make sure our five-year class-size reduction plan reflects fiscal realities and targets schools that need the most help," said Education Department spokesman Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.
The state cut $500 million in funding from the city schools this year, Zarin-Rosenfeld noted, and the system is facing a "a similarly bleak financial picture next year."
But parent advocates note that even when times were good in 2007 and 2008, the department failed to reduce class size.
In kindergarten to third grades, for example, average class size last year was 22.1 - higher than the 21 average that existed in 2006.
In the fourth to eighth grades, average class size was 25.8 last year, also higher than in 2006.
Numbers are not yet available for this school year.
These increases occurred despite the Education Department having received $2.1 billion in additional cash from the state under the Contract for Excellence since 2007.
"In the spirit of the [Contract for Excellence] legislation, we are making certain that class-size increases, should economic conditions warrant them, will have the least impact on children in the lowest-performing schools," said state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn.
Parents from across the state march on the Capitol in Albany to show support for CFE.
CFE v. State of New York
In 2006, after 13 years in the Courts, the New York State Court of Appeals affirmed the right of every public school student in New York to the opportunity for a sound basic education and the stateâ€™s responsibility to adequately fund this right, but deferred to the Governor and the Legislature to determine the appropriate amount. more >