The Race to the Top and its connection to class size
By Deborah Glick
For years we have been fighting for reduced class size for all students in the New York City schools. We’ve held rallies, demonstrations, wrote letters and had repeated meetings with various members of the Department of Education, including Chancellor Klein himself. In response to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, the state included capital funding to provide for physical expansion of school space to make it possible to reduce class size. Despite objections from the city administration, funding specifically for reduced class size was included in the State Education Department’s Contract for Excellence.
Nonetheless, class size continues to increase in those districts that have seen overcrowding, and while our determined advocacy has generated some new school seats, they have been entirely too few for the growing census of students. Now we have the spectacle of co-locations of charter schools in public school buildings. All this begs the question of how is it possible that there is so much extra school space available for charter schools, but not sufficient space for reduced class size and to reverse the elimination of cluster rooms and art and music rooms?
The tone deaf nature of the Department of Education is not anything new, but it still requires that communities and elected representatives stand up and fight for public education. The current focus on charter schools seems to absorb much more attention than the numbers of students in those schools warrant. Good government is about balance, and for the last several years that balance has not been in evidence in this approach.
Without entering into a full debate about the merits of the charter school movement, it is important to point out that the recent Race to the Top controversy revolves around eliminating a cap on charter schools, even though that aspect of the application from the state represents a very small portion of the scoring. The $700 million figure bandied about refers to a four-year commitment, which translates into a maximum of $175 million a year. Now that amount of money is nothing to sneeze at, but in the context of a $21 billion state education budget it is unlikely to cover all of the new required record keeping that attends the other parts of Race to the Top that was absent from the public debate.
What is most important to understand, however, is that the law currently allows any Board of Education in the state to convert any public school into a charter school with a majority vote of the parents of the children in that school. Schools Chancellor Klein expressly has that authority and has had it for a number of years. In fact, the chancellor has already converted five public schools into charter schools. So this notion that the law had to be changed to remove the cap on charter schools to allow for more improvement is a red herring. The cap only impacts those private organizations that seek to create new schools.
In the end, the mixed record on charter schools reflects the truism that there are some great schools, some terrible schools and mostly average schools. This applies to public schools as well. Our job is to look at the formula that we all know works: small class size, with a talented teacher and a complete range of subjects — including art, music, history and physical education, as well reading and math — results in a well-rounded student. This is the goal that we should continue to pursue. The limited focus on achieving only advancement in reading and math scores does a disservice to all students.
Glick is the assemblymember for the 66th District