state of the union

Union president gets an early start on yearly class size battle

After warning that overcrowding in public schools will be worse this year, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew is trying to publicly assure his members that he plans to be tough on the issue.

During the first few weeks of school in New York City, class sizes fluctuate as new students arrive and others transfer schools, making it difficult to pin down which buildings will experience severe overcrowding. But the union is already going to court to reduce class size at one chronically overcrowded Queens high school.

The United Federation of Teachers asked for a court order today that union officials said would confirm an arbitrator’s March order that the Department of Education reduce class sizes at Francis Lewis High School. City officials said that they have a plan to lower class sizes and that the arbitrator has given them until September 23 to comply.

“It is hard to understand why the UFT would prematurely rush to court when we’ve been working together, with an arbitrator, to find a sustainable solution for the school,” said a spokesman for the DOE in an email.

A union official said that without the court order, Francis Lewis teachers would have to file new grievances and go through arbitration again.

The union’s press release:

UFT Sues Chancellor Klein To Ensure Lower Class Size at Queens High School

Union asks court to confirm arbitration decision ordering DOE to lower class size at Francis Lewis High

The United Federation of Teachers today sued the Department of Education and Chancellor Joel Klein to ensure that the DOE follows the order of an arbitrator to reduce class sizes at Francis Lewis High School, which last year kept more than 2,000 students in oversize classes for an entire semester.

If it fails this fall to follow a court order enforcing the arbitrator’s decision and the class size limits at Francis Lewis, the Department of Education could be held in contempt.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said:  “During the last school year the UFT went to arbitration because the DOE refused to lower class sizes at Francis Lewis High School, one of the most overcrowded schools in the city. On March 10, 2010, an arbitrator ordered the DOE to comply with the class size guidelines in the contract, but the department not only refused to do so, it actually increased the number of oversize classes at the school.  We are asking the court to act now to help make sure that students are not victimized again.”

The March 10, 2010 decision by arbitrator Jeffery B. Tener  ruled that “the Department is directed to comply with the contractual class size limitations by equalizing classes to the extent possible and/or by adding additional classes.”  The UFT lawsuit charges that despite Tener’s ruling the DOE “continued to add more students to the oversized Francis Lewis High School classes.”

In his March 10, 2010 decision Tener noted that the school in Fresh Meadows, Queens had a history of class size complaints, including incidents in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Last year the school had more than 4,500 students, approximately 175 percent of capacity.

The court action was brought Tuesday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan.  Under New York State law, an arbitrator’s finding is enforceable by the State Supreme Court.

High school class size limits, in addition to 34 students in most academic classes, include 28 in trade shop subjects, and 50 in most gym and music classes.

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.