Testimony of UFT President Michael Mulgrew before the New York City Council Committee on Finance
My name is Michael Mulgrew and I’m the president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I would like to thank Chair Justin Brannan and all the members of the City Council’s Committee on Finance for holding today’s public hearing on the New York City executive budget for fiscal year 2023 and the executive capital commitment plan. I would also like to thank Speaker Adrienne Adams and Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph for their leadership during this year’s budget process.
FY23 Executive Budget and Capital Plan Squander a Golden Opportunity
We fought for New York City public schools to receive $7.6 billion in federal stimulus funding during the pandemic and we finally received a commitment from Albany to fully fund the foundation aid formula and bring an additional $1.3 billion in school aid to New York City over the course of three years. With such an infusion of funding available to our city’s schools, I ask, why are we considering an executive budget that looks to make $375 million in cuts to school budgets?
I will acknowledge that student enrollment in New York City public schools is down, and as a result the citywide average class size is also down, but these decreases should not be an excuse to make cuts to school budgets. I argue that instead this should be a golden opportunity to establish new class-size limits that will restore trust in the public school system and bring families and their children back to our schools. The fact of the matter is that our current average class sizes are closer to the class-size goals we’ve been calling for and established over a decade ago in the state’s Contracts for Excellence program.
Instead, we should make these lower class sizes the new norm and seek to replicate them in the 16% of schools across the city where space is still an issue. We should not allow the DOE to return to pre-pandemic class-size levels, especially without any public debate on the matter.
I would like to point out that the figures I am presenting are averages, meaning there are New York City public school students who are in classrooms that have many more students than the average. An analysis of class-size data from May 2022 conducted by Class Size Matters shows us that there are presently 187,000 students in New York City who are in classrooms with more than 30 students.
Finding space to reduce class size in every school is an issue that can be resolved by the executive capital budget, but an analysis of the published plan has me equally troubled. Last year’s plan indicated that the School Construction Authority planned to create 57,445 new seats through its new capacity program, but the executive capital plan this year includes the construction of 45,883 new seats, a reduction of 11,562. In financial terms, the city’s new capacity program has shrunk from $7.8 billion to $6.3 billion.
Again, it appears to me that instead of designing a public school system with new lower class-size limits, as parents and educators have urged for decades, the administration is focused on making cuts to adjust for the decline in enrollment. If we follow the administration’s plan, we will end up with a system that has fewer students yet has the same high class sizes as before the pandemic.
I am extremely disappointed in the proposed cuts under both the executive budget and the capital plan. Reducing class sizes is an equity issue. Class sizes in New York City have traditionally been 15% to 30% higher than those in the rest of the state. Why is it the norm for students in private schools and suburban school districts to have small class sizes, but not for New York City public school students?
I propose that we work on maintaining the existing lower class-size averages, focus on reducing class sizes in schools and classrooms that remain overcrowded, and expand the physical footprint of the New York City public school system by creating new seats as we attract families back to our public schools and work toward rebuilding enrollment.
Chancellor Banks has spoken about the need to rebuild trust to increase enrollment. Lowering class size is the way to do it. Every parent, every neighborhood, every demographic understands smaller class sizes are a game-changer for their children.
Fund UFT Programs
We are proud to say that UFT programs are among the best vehicles that city government can use to ensure that the allocated funding for education makes it straight to the classroom and has a direct impact on students and educators. This year we submitted discretionary-funding applications for six programs we ask the City Council to support.
1. United Community Schools (UCS), Inc. – Our teacher-inspired nonprofit has developed a community-school model proven to transform public schools and the communities they serve. The model is anchored by a community school director placed in each school who is responsible for assessing the needs of students and families in the school community, then leveraging outside relationships to bring in the resources to meet those needs. We find that every $1 invested in a community school director yields $6 in resources for the school. During the 2020-21 school year, our 28 UCS schools in New York City collectively fed more than 6,000 families, coordinated more than 10,500 health-clinic visits and supported more than 20,000 students and families. This year we are requesting that the Council provide UCS a $5 million grant so we can continue to intensify academic programming, make more tutors available, expand access to school-based health centers, connect more students to mental-health and behavioral-health resources, and provide more social-emotional learning and culturally responsive-sustaining education professional development for teachers.
2. UFT Teacher Center – For more than 40 years, the UFT Teacher Center has been a guiding light for New York City educators, particularly during the pandemic. Whether it was providing technological support or professional development on remote instruction, UFT Teacher Center stepped up and filled the gaps. During the 2021-22 school year, the UFT Teacher Center expanded its reach to include 118 sites across the five boroughs, and during the 2020-21 school year, the program supported 281,000 educators, principals and parents over the course of 126,000 hours of professional development. This year we are asking for a $10 million grant from the City Council to sustain current programming and expand. The UFT Teacher Center wants to add 10-15 new sites and develop new ways for teachers to help students catch up after the challenges of the pandemic. Those funds would also allow the program to expand its partnership with Google and increase its work with Apple, support paraprofessionals in addressing the needs of students with disabilities and English language learners, and increase culturally responsive-sustaining education course offerings.
3. Positive Learning Collaborative (PLC) – Our PLC program is one of our most effective tools for bringing equity to New York City public schools and helping teachers, students and parents cope with — and heal from — trauma. The UFT and the DOE created the PLC program in 2012 to help educators improve school culture by moving away from punitive disciplinary systems that relied heavily on suspensions. Over the past decade, reliance on suspensions in 40 PLC schools declined by 46%, while staff and student surveys indicated an increase of more than 50% in a positive school climate. During the pandemic, PLC expanded its offerings for schools to create healing-centered classrooms. We need to bring its expert services to as many schools as possible. We are requesting that the Council give PLC a $3 million grant to sustain our existing programming in schools.
4. Dial-A-Teacher – Dial-A-Teacher began in January 1980 as a pilot program in 17 schools in eight districts. Over the years, our homework helpline has expanded to help students citywide from all grades, across various disciplines and in many languages. Dial-A-Teacher is now operating Monday through Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., in nine languages including Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali. Last year, the program received more than 40,000 calls. If Dial-A-Teacher’s operating technology were upgraded, it could help even more students in the virtual-education arena, where so many of our students are now learning. We are requesting $265,000 to support this program. The funds would be used to: 1) further develop an online presence by creating an electronic application suited for the technology students are using today; 2) procure digital curricula for multiple subject areas — curricula the DOE has identified as aligning with the new standards; 3) perform technology maintenance and upgrades for the program; and 4) promote the program in the communities we serve.
5. BRAVE Hotline – The UFT entered into an agreement with the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA), now known as VIBRANT, on Oct. 3, 2011, to launch an anti-bullying campaign in New York City public schools. Since then, the UFT and MHA have been at the forefront of bringing awareness to the problem of bullying and creating resources that include a BRAVE (Building Respect, Acceptance and Voice through Education) hotline that students, their families and educators can call, as well as ways to chat or text for help, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With your continued support, we can make a lasting impact on the lives and health of students across New York City. We ask you to support this program with $300,000 in this fiscal year, so we can continue to provide the services that are a lifeline for our students and a place our educators can turn for resources.
6. Member Assistance Program (MAP) – In 2009, the UFT started MAP to fill a void for its members and their families. The union crafted and funded the program to address a full range of mental-health and well-being issues confronting its more than 190,000 members and their families. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, members’ outreach to MAP increased many times over. The program went from serving 4,500 members in 2018 to 32,000 members in 2021. Many of our members told us that the support provided by MAP enabled them to remain in the field of education by helping them to cope with and adapt to the stresses caused by the pandemic. During this time, MAP provided support groups, a Let’s Talk About It series, a telephone careline and mental health referrals that allowed members to stay connected, express their grief and recognize their fears and stressors. It offered them healthier coping tools to navigate the COVID upheaval and recover. Until now, the UFT has fully funded its MAP program. With your support, we can make a lasting impact on the lives and health of educators throughout New York City. We are asking that the Council consider allocating a $1,780,000 grant to help us maintain and expand this valuable program.
Support Citywide Programs
I would also like to take the time to advocate for two citywide programs that are vital for our students and educators. We need to baseline Teacher’s Choice, and I also ask the Council to support Broadway Bridges.
1. Teacher’s Choice – The Teacher’s Choice program is crucial to our educators. It’s a key initiative to ensure teachers and other school staff are reimbursed for the school supplies and materials they purchase for their classrooms and for many of their students in need. After the program was baselined for three years in the FY20 adopted budget, funding for Teacher’s Choice was completely cut from the FY21 adopted budget, but then $20 million for the program was restored in the FY22 budget. We appreciate the administration included $20 million in funding for Teacher’s Choice in the FY23 budget, and we ask that you maintain it and once again baseline the program in the budget.
2. Broadway Bridges – Broadway Bridges aims to ensure that every student in a New York City public high school can see a Broadway show before graduation. Through Broadway Bridges, the Broadway League subsidizes $20 tickets to weekday matinee and evening performances by paying half of the ticket price as well as the $3.00-$3.50 in fees associated with each ticket purchase. This subsidy enables the Broadway League to offer $10 tickets to schools. The initiative improves the arts experience of students who have not had the opportunity to attend live theater, and it enhances the experiences of students who are already engaged with the performing arts through their schools. We ask that you support this important initiative in the FY23 budget.
The UFT is also a member of the Lunch for Learning coalition, which successfully secured universal free school lunch for New York City public school students in 2017. We support the coalition’s request that the DOE transform every high school and middle school by fully scaling the Office of Food and Nutrition Services’ student-friendly cafeteria redesign model (Cafeteria Enhancement Experience).
The welcoming environment and the food-court-style serving line provide more daily menu options and faster service, and the presentation dramatically increases the appeal of the food. High schools with redesigned cafeterias experienced a 35% increase in student participation in school meals.
This model is highly cost-effective and time-efficient. Each cafeteria redesign costs only $500,000 and can be completed in one weekend. Approximately 80 of the Department of Education’s 575 middle and high school cafeterias either have the redesign model or currently have funds dedicated for the work. An investment of $250 million in capital funds over five years is needed to transform all middle and high school cafeterias.
We have a real opportunity to bring transformational change to New York City public schools. With access to federal stimulus funding and new state funding, we can permanently reduce class sizes for all our students, which will not only improve educational outcomes but will make schools healthier learning environments. The city’s executive budget lacks imagination, creativity and innovation. After more than two years of a pandemic, our students deserve better. UFT members are always ready to be of service and provide the best they can to all students.
I want to thank you again for today’s hearing. We look forward to our continued engagement throughout this budget process.