NYC’s budget deal pilots smaller class sizes, dedicates millions to COVID learning loss

Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson formally shake hands to agree on a final budget that boosts spending for schools. (John McCarten/New York City Council Flickr)

New York City lawmakers approved Wednesday a record-high budget that will send billions more to schools, including for testing and tutoring students next fall, and a pilot program to reduce class sizes, a longtime goal of many local education advocates. 

The $98.7 billion spending plan marks the largest and final budget under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure. It is also, arguably, his most consequential, paving a path for the city’s economic and social recovery after the coronavirus pandemic upended two school years for nearly 1 million students. 

Many budget figures weren’t immediately available. However, officials confirmed that the education department’s spending would increase by $2.4 billion year-over-year. That would put the total budget for the nation’s largest school system at $31.6 billion. 

When starting the budget process in January, de Blasio initially shared a pessimistic outlook for schools if the federal government and state didn’t send more money to New York City. But now, the city is flush with nearly $7 billion in federal coronavirus relief dollars for schools and another $1.3 billion in state aid. 

Even with the influx of cash, it’s still a big question whether the extra funding will provide enough support for students and teachers as they return to buildings — many for the first time since March 2020 — after 16 months marked by death, isolation, and the challenges of remote learning. Budget watchdogs also raised concerns about how sustainable some of these new efforts will be after federal relief runs out in 2024. The de Blasio administration has insisted that tax revenues will grow now that the city has reopened and will support these programs in the future.

Additionally, officials have not shared a full accounting of how the city plans to spend federal coronavirus relief dollars. State law requires the city to post their plan for the money online by Thursday. 

The budget agreement covers fiscal year 2022, which runs from July 1 through June 30, 2022.

Here are some of the preliminary highlights for schools.

More money for school budgets

The bulk of money schools get to run their day-to-day operations, such as teacher salaries and services for students with disabilities, comes from a formula known as fair student funding. This year, for the first time, every school will get 100% of the dollars they’re entitled to receive under the city’s fair student funding formula. About three-quarters of schools previously did not get their full allotment and will now see boosts. 

“Now, they will have money to hire new teachers, art, music, gym, you name it,” said Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of the City Council’s education committee, during the budget press conference Wednesday. 

It will cost the city a total $605 million next fiscal year, plus another $140 million to cover fringe benefits and pension costs, according to the Independent Budget Office. 

That formula determines how much funding goes to each school and generally is designed to send more money to high-needs schools.

For years, city officials blamed the gap in fair student funding on a lack of money from the state through its own funding formula. But Albany’s budget grew this year after an increase in federal funding and increases to income taxes on millionaires and corporations, resulting in more money for schools.

‘Academic recovery’ — with few details

The final budget will include an “academic recovery” plan after children lost out on instructional time in the classroom: all students spent about a third of the 2019-2020 school year fully remote, and more than 60% finished out the following school year learning exclusively from home. 

The mayor had proposed spending $500 million on helping students catch up by giving students diagnostic tests when they return this fall to measure their English and math skills. Students will then get extra support, such as high-dosage tutoring, to catch up on those subjects where they are below grade level. 

But many questions remain unanswered, including what the diagnostic tests will be, what sort of extra support will be available for students, and who will provide tutoring. Aside from some details revealed during a City Council budget hearing in May, city officials have declined to offer more specifics. In response to questions from Chalkbeat, an education department spokesperson said more information would be shared “in the coming days.” 

Smaller class sizes and literacy

The City Council proposed a $250 million investment to reduce class size. Instead, the city is planning an $18 million pilot program for smaller classes, though officials declined to share details about what it would involve. A department spokesperson said more details would be shared “in the coming days.”

Reducing class size has been a perennial issue. This year, as social distancing required small classes, many families and educators saw benefits of having fewer children in a classroom, and many believe that small classes are critical again next year since children will likely have a range of needs and could be at widely different levels academically. Advocates were hopeful that the billions in federal and state dollars could support such an initiative. 

This final investment is a “piddling amount of money,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy organization Class Size Matters.

“I think this is a very sad end to a mediocre mayoral record when it comes to our schools,” Haimson said. “He could have easily funded that out of the $8 billion [in federal and state money].”

Separately, the city will spend $27 million on a literacy curriculum focused on helping students read at grade level and “address learning loss,” according to a press release from Speaker Corey Johnson’s office. City officials declined to share more details Wednesday, saying that more will be shared in the “coming days.” 

Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates For Children New York, said the investment is just over half of what City Council and advocates had asked for and falls short of the need.

“In addition, the budget does not include any additional funding for evidence-based literacy interventions for students who need additional support in reading,” Sweet wrote in a statement.  “Every year, AFC hears from hundreds of families concerned that their students are not learning to read within NYC public schools, and the data show that less than half of 3rd through 8th graders are reading proficiently with alarming disparities based on race, disability, and housing status.”

Special education seats for preschoolers — with a catch

Universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds has been de Blasio’s signature education accomplishment. Thanks to an influx of federal dollars, the city had proposed spending $377 million next fiscal year to ramp up programming for 3-year-olds, with the goal to make “3-K” universally available by September 2023, according to figures shared in April. 

But the rapidly expanding program will still leave out many students with disabilities who are entitled to smaller classes with specialized instruction, in part because they are often served by nonprofit organizations that have been struggling to stay afloat amid years of nearly flat funding from the state. At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, 1,215 preschool students with disabilities were still waiting for classroom seats, according to an analysis of city data conducted by Advocates for Children.

De Blasio and the City Council have agreed to spend $22 million on a slew of initiatives for preschool students with disabilities, including opening dozens of classrooms that integrate students with disabilities and their peers without disabilities. But the city is not directing additional funding to eliminate the gap in seats for students who need more specialized classrooms until the fiscal year beginning in July 2022. That means many preschool students with disabilities could be forced to sit at home without access to instruction next school year.

“Preschoolers with intensive needs should not have to wait for the City to uphold their legal rights,” wrote Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children. Levine also noted that the city has not committed to eliminating the yawning pay disparity between preschool special education teachers at city-run programs and those at nonprofit community organizations, which often amounts to a $30,000 difference. The discrepancy can make it difficult for community organizations to attract teachers and keep classrooms running.

More social workers and mental health support

The budget will set aside money to make sure every school has a full-time social worker or access to an in-house mental health clinic, which employ psychologists and other types of clinicians. 

In all, the mayor proposed spending $91 million in federal COVID relief dollars to pay for 500 additional social workers as well as a short mental health assessment for every student when they return in the fall. (Families can opt their children out of getting screened, officials have said.) 

The budget will also include another $5 million to support schools in connecting with “health experts rather than police” when children are experiencing a mental health crisis, Treyger said. 

“We don’t need the police to respond to 5-year-olds and 7-year-olds having a bad day in school,” he said. 

During the 2019-20 school year, Black students received nearly half of all suspensions or removals from school that also involved contact with the police, and six police-involved incidents involved 6-year-old children.

A Council spokesperson did not immediately share more details about which schools would receive this funding or how the program would work.

Sweet, with Advocates for Children, praised the investment, adding that this type of model is based on schools partnering with hospital-based mental health clinics for advice and care.

Expanding community schools

The mayor had proposed spending $51 million on expanding the community schools program, which provides high-needs school communities with wraparound services, such as mental health support and extra academic help. His plan was to open 140 more such schools by the fall of 2022. 

Separately, an additional $9 million will go toward restoring funding cuts for community organizations that partner with 52 community schools, which resulted from a new funding model the city has begun to implement.

Alex Zimmerman and Christina Veiga contributed.

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