Testimony on the proposed five-year capital plan

Testimony of Leo Casey, UFT VP of Academic High Schools, before New York City Council Education Committee

Thank you for convening a hearing on this crucial issue of the 2010-2014 Five Year Capital Plan for the Department of Education. We at the United Federation of Teachers believe that the primary focus of the capital planning process should be the alleviation of overcrowding and the reduction of large class size in all of our public schools.

There is a critical shortage of seats for New York City public school students. By the Department of Education’s own calculations, there are public schools currently operating at nearly 200% capacity, that is, schools with two students for every single seat. Thirty-eight percent of New York City’s public school students attend overcrowded schools. Schools from the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village to eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn are bursting at the seams, with serious shortages of student seats in those neighborhoods.

For schools, overcrowding is not a mere inconvenience or unpleasantry. It has a direct, negative impact upon student learning. Overcrowded schools face great challenges in maintaining a positive school tone and climate. Congested classrooms, hallways and cafeterias are breeding places for altercations and incidents. Academic programs and offerings are limited by space constraints. Classes, science laboratories and physical education classes are held in inappropriate spaces. Supply closets and bathrooms become make-do guidance and social work offices.

Most importantly, overcrowded schools can not lower class size, because they lack the space to open new classes. There is no more important educational issue than class size in the City Council’s deliberations on this Capital Plan, and it has been made all the more critical by the Department of Education’s shameful record on this front: we are headed in the wrong direction. In the current school year, class sizes at every grade level in New York City public schools have increased – the first time in a decade that our schools have taken such a dramatic step backward. In the 2007-08 school year, well over half of New York City public schools recorded larger class sizes and teacher-student ratios, according to the New York State Department of Education.

What is inexplicable about these increases is the fact that they have occurred despite the nearly $400 million in state Contract for Excellence funds given to New York City public schools for the express purpose of reducing large class size. But when the Department of Education has communicated with school principals on the subject of class size reduction, it equivocates: “Implementing reduced class size requires complex tradeoffs and decisions. The purpose of this memo is to help you to weigh these tradeoffs as your school conducts its comprehensive planning,” Chief Executive for Portfolio Development Garth Harries wrote in a May 2008 memo. Rather than address the misallocation of CFE funds, the Department’s top leadership has begun a public relations campaign to discredit the educational benefits of lower class size. It matters little, apparently, that the most authoritative research in the field of education, such as the Tennessee STAR study, demonstrates the positive instructional effects of smaller classes.

A crucial step in getting New York City public schools back on the right path with regard to school overcrowding and class size is fixing the Department of Education’s capital plan. When UFT President Randi Weingarten testified before this committee last December, she pointed out a number of shortcomings in the Five Year Capital Plan as it was then formulated. Subsequent revisions of the plan have left these flaws intact, so it will be up to the City Council to correct them. Specifically:

  • The Capital Plan falls far short of the number of new seats our schools will need to meet the state mandated class targets: we need 167,000 new seats, and yet the Capital Plan includes just a shade over 25,000 – a fraction of what is required.
  • The Capital Plan uses class size “targets” of 20 students per class in K-3, 28 per class in middle schools and 30 per class in high schools, significantly higher than the four year CFE targets set by the state of 20 students per class in K-3 and 23 per class in grades 4-12.
  • The Capital Plan dedicates a large portion of funds, $ 1.7 billion, to replacement of expiring leases. The use of leases has caused serious problems among existing high schools; this year alone, there are a number of high schools which are facing relocation due to expiring leases. When a high school’s academic program is closely tied to its location, as is the case with Middle College HS where students take courses in LaGuardia Community College, moving that location can seriously undermine the fabric of the entire institution. We need to be transitioning out of lease arrangements.
  • The Capital Plan lacks specifics when it comes to eliminating temporary classroom space such as trailers, and restoring “lost rooms” for physical education and cultural enrichment in music and the arts. These are educational priorities.
  • The Capital Plan does not plan proactively for growth in different communities around the city, and so does not direct the resources to what will be the areas of greatest need.

A word needs to be said about the DOE’s misplaced priorities in the section of its capital plan dedicated to new construction for charter schools. The revised version of the capital plan published last month commits $210 million to the construction of new buildings for charter schools.

The UFT has a solid record of support for charter schools when they are done right, expanding the choices of quality public education available to students and their families. We have no objection to supporting charter schools through the capital plan, provided that such support is part of a comprehensive effort to address overcrowding and to lower class size in all public schools, district and charter.

But the Department of Education’s capital plan for charter school construction is an illustration of how to get this wrong. None of the proposed new charter school construction is slated to be built in the Community School Districts with the greatest need for new seats, as measured by the Department of Education’s own latest Enrollment-Capacity-Utilization Report (the ‘Blue Book’). For example, the recently completed Excellence Charter School for Boys cited in the Capital Plan was located in a Brooklyn Community School District which is second from the bottom citywide in terms of need for new elementary school seats. With such great need across the city and limited capital funds to meet it, why are we locating new public school seats where the need is the least?

When President Randi Weingarten testified before this committee in December, we did not yet know of the disposition of the federal stimulus package. Today, we know that included in the stimulus money that will come to New York City public schools are funds for school modernization. The City Council needs to ensure that these funds, together with the funds already available for the Capital Plan, are spent wisely and to best effect in alleviating overcrowding and reducing large class size throughout all of New York City’s public schools. The education of this and coming generations of our school children will be shaped by how well you accomplish that task, fixing the shortcomings in the current Capital Plan.

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