UFT: City's special education reforms causing class size crunch

One in four city schools have overcrowded classes, and the number of oversized special education classes more than doubled since last year, according to this year’s class size tally by the United Federation of Teachers.

Union members reported 270 special education classes with more than the mandated number of students in the early weeks of the year, up from 118 last year.

During a press conference outside a Chelsea school building, UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the city’s special education reforms, which are meant to move more students with disabilities into general education classes, were “clearly and solidly behind” the too-large special education classes.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Mulgrew said about the oversized special education classes. “Principals are telling us they are being mandated to do things they cannot do, and this is going to be a big problem.”

The union’s contract with the city sets class size limits in each grade. When classes exceed the limit, the union can file grievances against the city to get the classes reduced in size — a process that can take months, Mulgrew said.

This year, the union identified 6,220 classes over their contractual limits in 670 schools during the first weeks of the year. While the number of oversized classes was actually down 11 percent from last year’s recent high of 6,978, the number of schools with oversized classes grew slightly, and the union estimates that nearly a quarter of all city students are spending all or part of the day in overcrowded classes for the second straight year.

Two large Queens high schools, Benjamin Cardozo and Forest Hills, have about 250 oversized classes each, according to the union’s tally. Two Queens middle schools, M.S. 210 and M.S. 226, also topped the list of primary schools with the most overcrowded classes.

Parents regularly cite class size reduction as a top priorities on the Department of Education’s annual surveys, and teachers say they could help students more if there were fewer of them in each class.

“We have the ability to be wonderful at 34 students, but the quality we can give our students is nothing like last year, when we had smaller classes,” Amanda Fletcher, a teacher from the Museum School, said today.

Citing both logistical constraints and research that has documented achievement gains from smaller classes only in limited contexts, the Bloomberg administration has never made class size a priority. Last year, in comments that were more pointed than usual but not a departure from sentiments he had expressed previously, Mayor Bloomberg said he would like to fire half the city’s teachers and pay the rest more to supervise twice-as-large classes.

The city’s contract with the UFT limits classes to 25 students in kindergarten; 32 students in elementary school; 33 students in middle schools and 30 students in middle schools with many poor students; and 34 students in high schools. Even with the limits, city schools have by far the largest average class sizes in the state, according to Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, who appeared with Mulgrew at the press conference.

Special education class sizes are determined not by the teachers union contract but by students’ Individualized Education Plans. Some students’ IEPs require them to be in classes of no more than 12 students, for example.

The city’s new special education policies require schools to accept students without considering their special education needs. So a school that might have sent students who required classes of 12 to another school in the past must now create classes to accommodate them — but educators and advocates have said the schools are not always getting the resources they need to do so.

Principals are “not being given the budget to open the appropriate number of classes,” Mulgrew said. “That’s an untenable situation.”

City officials said early data show that the Department of Education has brought on 700 new special education teachers this year to help schools share the task of serving students with disabilities. The Department of Education official in charge of the reforms told parents last week that her office is working to smooth road bumps as they emerge in the reforms’ early days.

Special education classes that are too large for their students but not so large that they exceed the teachers union’s contract can only be addressed by filing a complaint with the state, something Mulgrew said the union was considering doing.

The union will soon file a contractual grievance against the other oversized classes, and many of the classes will shrink as schools shuffle students around in the coming weeks, as typically happens at the beginning of the school year. The city issues its own class size report each November, after schools set their official registers for the year, often confirming the trends the union has noted but not their magnitude.

But union officials said addressing the violations is often a long slog. Last year, officials said, arbitrators ultimately supported 95 percent of the union’s class size grievances. But a school’s first violation yields only a warning, and higher-stakes judgements for repeat offenders often do not come down until February or March.

“Why do we need to wait seven months when it should have been done on October first?” Mulgrew asked today. He added, “This is not a priority of this administration.”

After the press conference, Brooke Jackson, principal of NYC Lab School, approached Mulgrew to tell him that she appreciated that he did not blame principals for maintaining oversized classes.

“I want to thank you for understanding that our hands are tied,” she said. “Honestly, even if I worked on class size, I wouldn’t have the space to put the children in, literally. … And I feel like [the] enrollment [office] flips in more and more students each year above our target, and the building doesn’t get bigger.”

Department of Education officials said the union could free up funding for more teachers who could reduce class sizes by agreeing to cost-cutting proposals the city has put forth. Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman, pointed to the city’s proposals to buy out teachers who do not have permanent positions or limit their tenure in that role as a first step.

“If Mr. Mulgrew does in fact share this concern, he should accept our many proposals to stop paying those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool who are draining resources that could otherwise be used to put permanent, effective teachers in the classroom,” she said.

Chicago teachers tried but failed to get class size limits written into their contract during their strike this month, and New York City remains one of few large urban districts with contractual limits. Mulgrew said today that teachers had forgone a raise to get the limits that are in place now and that the union would look for ways to reduce class sizes more when it next negotiates a contract with the city.