By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
Where it is possible to measure what difference has been made, the results aren't encouraging. Take money aimed at making class sizes smaller, which at $153 million was the top item on the city's spending list. In 2007-08, the first year of the Contracts for Excellence, class sizes fell only gradually: less than half a student per class, well short of the goals the city itself had set as a target for the year. A State Education Department report found that in 70 schools that had gotten $100,000 or more in CFE money, class sizes had actually gone up; it ordered the city to "provide evidence of how Contract funds were used appropriately."
This year, the wheels came off. For grades K through 8, class size had gone up in every grade but one as of last October, according to city figures. "This is the second year of a class-size-reduction plan they said they were going to improve on," says Leonie Haimson, a Manhattan public-school parent who founded the aptly named Class Size Matters after, she says, her daughter's first-grade teacher confided that she "prayed for days when one or two kids were absent" so she could get some actual teaching done. "In fact, in K through 3 the gains were so large that it wiped out five years' worth of improvements in one year."
City education spokesperson Will Havemann says the October numbers aren't reliable, because they include students who are not actually enrolled in classes at those schools. New figures next month should show better results, he predicts.
Haimson calls this explanation "a lot of BS": In past years, the only levels that saw significant declines between October and January were for high schools, where kids were dropping out. (In a letter to State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, Haimson wrote: "We object to the notion that the DOE would try to claim credit for reducing class size that results from high discharge or dropout rates.") And, she calculates, even if class sizes come down by 1.25 percent, as the city predicts, that would still leave them higher than last year in every elementary and middle-school grade but two.
One problem with this area of the Contracts for Excellence is that, while Haimson, the teachers' union, and many parents want aid focused on class-size reduction, Bloomberg education officials have been lukewarm on the issue. They wrote a five-year plan for class-size reduction only under duress from the state, and they remain committed to the belief that their priorities should be elsewhere. Ivan Lafayette, a veteran state assembly member from Queens who quit last summer to work in the Paterson administration, recalled in 2007 urging city education Chancellor Joel Klein to start hiring more teachers to meet class-size goals. Klein's response, according to Lafayette: "If you have an excellent teacher it doesn't matter if she's teaching 28 kids or 21 kids."
The looming state and city budget deficits only threaten to make matters worse. Bloomberg, anticipating rough fiscal waters ahead, slashed $180 million from the city schools budget last February, and has proposed $385 million in cuts for the next school year. Paterson's 2009 budget promises to eviscerate schools funding, with $360 million in "deficit reduction assessment" cuts to basic city schools funding; the court-mandated CFE funds, meanwhile, scheduled to be $645 million this year, would be entirely "deferred" to as late as the year 2014, with no guarantees the money would rematerialize even then. "That's as good as being unconstitutional," says Rebell.
For now, everyone seems to be hoping that a deus ex machina will turn up to prevent the cuts from going through—a federal bailout of state education budgets, a "millionaire's tax" to raise revenue, gold doubloons discovered under the governor's desk. "I don't know how serious the governor is in the way he put forward this proposal," says Rebell. "He knows it's going to the legislative hopper. There's going to be a balance of increased taxes and cuts, and where exactly that balance is going to come out is the critical question."
One widely circulated proposal, pushed by the Working Families Party among others, is for a temporary state income tax surcharge on people earning over $250,000 a year, who currently pay the same 6.85 percent rate as New Yorkers with incomes of just $20,000. Rebell says a "full-court press" is needed for increased state funding, as well as "educational maintenance grants" from Washington to bail out state education budgets—a plan first floated by Ohio governor Ted Strickland early last year, and which has since gathered the support of Paterson and several other Democratic governors.
There's some hope this could work. The executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Geri Palast, is serving as an adviser to Obama's transition team. But if federal help fails, Palast's deputies have said the Campaign could return to court. It's something that critics of the settlement say would not have been necessary if the court had retained more oversight of the increased schools funding. Rebell himself now says, "We had asked the court to retain jurisdiction for exactly this kind of reason, and they chose not to."
Haimson, for her part, wishes that Rebell and his cohorts had pushed harder. "Originally, the attorneys, in their wisdom, decided that there would be no controls over that money in any real sense—they had an idea that accountability meant meetings with the chancellor and public hearings, and all the rest. But public hearings alone don't have much force with these guys—they just ignore them." She argued, in an amicus brief, that the court should have made it a stipulation of the settlement that conditions in the schools actually change—not just that a certain amount of money be thrown at them.