Tuesday, July 24

Contracts for Excellence plan draws critiques from Council, public

This morning the City Council's Education Committee conducted a hearing on the Department of Education's proposed plan to spend $228 million in state Contracts for Excellence funds. [See previous posts on this topic.] The hearing was organized by Councilman Robert Jackson, president of the Education Committee. Those testifying included officials from the Department of Education, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and the teachers' and administrators' unions, among others. The hearing was basically an opportunity for council members to get information and, in some cases, to offer their thoughts on the DOE's plan; the plan does not require a signature of approval from the City Council to move forward.

Jackson directed the meeting, and the most interesting part by far was the first two hours, during which Chancellor Klein and Marcia Lyles outlined the DOE's plan and argued that it does, in fact, conform to Governor Spitzer's mandates. (Other testimony, of course, was also pertinent, but was very similar to what we saw during the public hearings on the plan.) Below are what I took to be some of the high points from that segment of the hearing.

  • The DOE website has (finally) published a breakdown of Contracts for Excellence funding by district. Although this breakdown does show the amount of money to be spent on each of the five permitted "program areas" in each district (e.g. smaller class sizes, more time on task, etc.), Jackson complained that the document is hardly a comprehensive plan. Instead, it is simply aggregated, by district, individual schools' planned spending in each area.
  • Jackson was frustrated that the DOE had not made substantive changes to its Fair Student Funding plan in response to the Contracts for Excellence requirements; instead, the department claimed that the plan already complied with the required mandates. In response, Klein argued that the same ultimate goals lie at the heart of both the Contracts for Excellence and Children First reforms, and that it is then unsurprising that Children First's Fair Student Funding didn't have to change much to comply with the state's requirements.
  • In response to criticisms about the timing of the DOE's public hearings on the plan, Klein stressed the tight timeline his office faced in organizing the coming year's budgets, saying that "while, as noted, there is a near perfect symmetry between the substance of our reforms and CFE, we must all acknowledge the practical timing challenges related to fulfilling the mandate of the new legislation this first year." Klein said next year's process would be smoother and better advertised in advance.
  • As with the rest of the Children First reforms, Klein emphasized the need not only for more money, but for that money to be spent well. He returned to this theme several times, using to respond to Jackson's skepticism about whether assessments could qualify for increased "time on task" and to Councilman Koppell's worry that arts education would be neglected in the absence of specific Project Arts allocations.
  • Jackson and Klein debated the effectiveness of team teaching as a way to reduce class sizes. According to Klein, the Contracts for Excellence regulations allow adding an additional teacher to a classroom as a means to reduce class size. Although he agreed with Jackson that this measure may not be ideal, he said that, in the absence of more space (which will take time under the new five-year capital improvement plan) it was sometimes the only option.
  • With respect to class sizes, a point of contention was whether CTT classes should count as such a reduction. CTT, or Collaborative Team Teaching, places special education students in a class with regular students, and the class is taught by two teachers, one of whom is certified in special ed. The DOE plan includes CTT classes in its class size reduction plans. Geri Palast, of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (one of the organizations that sponsored the lawsuit from which the Contract for Excellence funds resulted) criticized this view of CTT classes, saying that CTT programs targeted classes with special needs and autistic students, not students in large classes, and that the funds were therefore not going toward the "highest needs students" as the CFE law requires.
There was, of course, much more covered than can be summed up in these highlights, but these are the significant points that weren't already seen during the public hearings. Have more questions about specific testimony or content? Leave a comment and I'll post some more info.


Patrick Sullivan said...


Today, the Chancellor made comments that seemed to indicate he supported smaller class sizes, but didn't have the space to provide them. Was that your recollection?

Last week, when the Contracts for Excellence plan was reviewed at the Panel for Educational Policy meeting, he said quite clearly that the idea that smaller class sizes were beneficial was "highly controversial" for grades above third. I suspect this view is closer to his true position.


Ben said...

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for your comment. My notes agree with your recollection; Chancellor Klein did not question the value of reducing class sizes in upper grades. He said to Councilman Jackson: "I don't think there's a dispute about lowering class size, but only about how to do it, and the reality is that you can only do it with more space."

Interesting that his statement seems to directly conflict with his comments before the Panel for Educational Policy.