Eric Severson is the chapter leader at Clara Barton HS in Brooklyn.
In my first year teaching in the New York City school system, I became well acquainted with one of the most energetic women I have ever met, a Mexican-American elevator operator who operated our school’s antiquated hand-crank lift. She worked two other jobs besides this one and supplemented her income by knitting in every spare moment and enthusiastically selling hats, scarves and mittens to anyone she met. When the United States’ economy crashed in 2008, it was not the Wall Street bankers whose exotic financial instruments led to the crash who lost their jobs, it was working-class school staff and aides who made $13 an hour and were considered “non-essential” because they do not directly teach students.
Teachers in New York largely kept their jobs thanks to union contracts that prevented the Bloomberg administration from adding to already huge class sizes of 34 and avoided salary cuts, although we did not get a new contract and a raise until De Blasio signed one in May 2014 (and we will not receive our retroactive salary in full until 2020). However, everything else that could be was cut to the bone due to shrinking budgets as the economy contracted: Deans in charge of discipline, guidance counselors and money for basic supplies like computers and even copy paper was reduced.
One of the most tangible examples of these budget cuts for us teachers was the drastic reduction in a program called “Teacher’s Choice” in which the city council appropriated funds to allow teachers to purchase whatever supplies they needed for the classroom. When I started in 2006, this program provided $215 which I could use as I saw fit as long as I kept and turned in the receipts. I used the money to buy class sets of paperback novels and plays to enliven my self-contained class for students with special needs who responded much better to acting out scenes from a play or reading thrilling adventure stories than filling out the boring workbooks that were on the shelves when I arrived. At the height of the Great Recession, this annual fund was completely eliminated one year and revived at a drastically reduced $48 the next. Even today with unemployment at nearly half what it was at the worst of the crisis, the Teacher’s Choice budget is only $70, less than a third what it was when I started in 2006 and even less in inflation-adjusted terms.
So, years after the official end of the great recession, New York City educators and their students are still feeling the hangover effect of draconian budget cuts. Citywide, schools still have excessive class sizes of 34 students to a room, guidance counselors, social workers, art and music teachers and librarians are in short supply and the the new mantras of ‘rigor’ and ‘differentiation’ demand that teachers do more and more with less. The fight to restore equitable funding for New York City’s students has been a long one, but public opinion is on the side of the teachers. The United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s public school teacher union, has asked members and supporters to write and lobby the city council to restore the teacher’s choice budget for the next school year. If you support the people who work tirelessly to build a better future for one million students, I suggest you join this campaign.
A high school English teacher in Queens builds a library of graphic novels for his struggling readers. A pre-K teacher in the East Village helps her students care for their own caterpillars as they transform into butterflies. And a 3rd-grade teacher in an impoverished section of the Bronx makes sure every student goes home with a notebook and pencil — because, she says, “It’s a little thing for us to give them those supplies, but for them it’s like the biggest thing in the world.”
In classrooms across the city, teachers and students are accomplishing amazing things every day. But they need the supplies — and the funding — to make it happen.
Teachers know best what materials they need for their classrooms and their students. That’s why, more than 25 years ago, the UFT initiated the Teacher’s Choice program. Traditionally funded by the City Council, Teacher’s Choice gives educators the freedom to purchase their own supplies for use in schools.
Because of the recession, Teacher’s Choice was eliminated during the 2011–12 school year. Although funding was restored the following school year, the amount since then has remained a fraction of what it used to be even as our city’s economy has recovered.
Our city now has the most state education aid it has received in eight years. Yet our teachers continue to spend hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets to give their students a high-quality education.
Our teachers and our students deserve better. It’s time for the City Council to restore Teacher’s Choice funding.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has found a new way to help his ultra-wealthy campaign contributors while at the same time hurting public schools.
He is proposing an education tax credit that would richly reward his campaign donors by giving individuals and businesses tax credits equal to 75 percent of their donations to a scholarship fund for private schools. The scholarships can go to students from families who earn up to $250,000.
Tax credits are far more generous than tax deductions because they give a dollar-for-dollar reduction of taxes. That means one of Cuomo’s Wall Street supporters who gives $1.3 million to a private school would have his state taxes reduced by a whopping $1 million.
To make this proposal politically palatable, Cuomo is also offering the tax credits for contributions to public schools or nonprofits that provide education support, such as after-school programs. But the fact that a school must have a foundation to receive contributions reveals that private schools and their donors are the intended beneficiaries.
Public schools can get only up to $20 million in tax credits, while tax credits for private schools may total $70 million.
Our governor owes state public schools more than $5 billion under the Campaign for Fiscal Equity settlement, but has somehow found $150 million a year to subsidize his wealthy donors and private schools.
Most telling is that Cuomo’s proposed tax credit bill bears striking resemblance to model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing group that wants to destroy public education and whose funders include the Koch family.
Our governor is in step with ALEC’s right-wing ideology against public schools. But he is far out of step with New York State residents, as recent polls show.
The state Legislature must reject this destructive proposal.
[This editorial originally appeared in the March 27 issue of the New York Teacher.]
A new proposal making its way through the state Legislature is a thinly veiled voucher program that would use taxpayer money to fund religious and other private schools in New York City and across the state.
The proposal, already approved by the state Senate and included in its budget bill, threatens the future funding of public education and must be kept out of the final state budget.
It is misleadingly called the education investment tax credit. It would be more accurate to call it the plan to divest public education and further enrich wealthy donors to private schools.
The program would grant individuals tax credits of up to $1 million for donations to scholarship funds for religious or other private schools.
In other words, money that would go into state coffers to fund public education, affordable housing or infrastructure improvements would instead go into the bank accounts of wealthy people who donate to private scholarship funds.
And the scholarships themselves would benefit children of well-off families, with a generous household income limit of $550,000.
The tax credits would also be available for donors to public schools. But don’t let that fool you. Public schools were added to make the tax credit more widely palatable. This bill would allow wealthy donors to pick which public schools they want to support and which not.
In a cynical attempt by the bill’s writers to win over public school educators and their supporters, teachers would also get a tax credit of at least $100 for buying supplies.
Although the state Senate has passed the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Marty Golden, the Assembly leadership, to its credit, is showing less enthusiasm.
But the tax credit proposal has momentum. It is particularly alarming that 17 labor unions, most of them representing uniformed public employees, back the bill on the grounds that it would benefit their members, presumably because many of them send their children to parochial schools.
Have middle-class and working New Yorkers who choose to send their children to private school forgotten the importance of a well-funded public education system?
This proposed massive tax giveaway would hurt working people by increasing the already staggering wealth inequality in New York. By draining money that we need for our public schools, state universities, highways and other vital services, it would threaten the economic future of our state.
As charter school proponents go to Albany this week to plead their case, let’s examine the realities behind their claims of stretched resources, unique student demand and stellar academic results.
How poor are charter schools?
While charters maintain they have very thin budgets, and some smaller charters in fact operate close to the margin, others are extremely well-funded.
A review of the most recently available public documents showed that as of 2011-12, the schools in six of the city’s most prominent charter chains had a total of more than $65 million in net assets, including nearly $16 million for the charters which are part of the Uncommon Schools Network and more than $13 million for the Success Academy Network.
What’s more, this supposed poverty doesn’t prevent some charters from paying very large salaries to their executives, as the Daily News recently reported. The two Harlem Village Academies run by Deborah Kenny pay her a total of half a million dollars a year; Eva Moskowitz of Success Academies reported a salary only a few thousand less, while David Levin of KIPP got just under $400,000. All these salaries are dramatically more than those of the city’s mayor and chancellor, who supervise roughly 1,700 schools.
Charters’ opaque bookkeeping methods make it difficult to figure out how much many schools spend on their vendors, but tax filings by the Success Academy schools suggest that management fees charged by that network totaled $3.5 million of their schools’ per-pupil funds in 2011-12. In 2013, the Success Network requested and received a raise in management fees to 15 percent of the per-pupil funding it receives from the state and city.
The total amount of management fees charged by just four of the city’s charter chains in 2011-12 — Success, Uncommon, Achievement First, and KIPP — was over $12 million. (see table below)
Charter Chain Financial Data, 2011-12
Number of NYC Schools with Audits
Total Net Assets of Schools
Total Management Fees
Top Executive Compensation 2010-11
Success Charter Network
Village Academies Network
Not Listed on Audit
All of these figures are based on the schools’ own filings; the lack of publicly available audits for many other chains limits information about what other networks are charging. Meanwhile, charter proponents led by Success Academy have launched a court fight to prevent an independent expert — the State Comptroller — from auditing charters’ and charter management companies’ books.
A study based on 2010-11 by the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that as of 2009-10, co-locating a charter school in a public school building in effect gave the charter about $650 per student more in public funding than district schools spend. Their calculations were based on earlier, lower levels of charter per-pupil funding, however; at current rates, that disparity may now be over $2,000 per student.
Charters also get foundation grants — including from right-wing organizations like the Walton Family Foundation, which has given more than $1 million to Achievement First in recent years. In addition, a look at official filings by many charters — in particular the Success Academy network — show that the schools or chains have boards dominated by hedge funders and other financial interests whose contributions could theoretically absorb any reasonable rent charged for public school space; at a gala in 2013, for example, the Success Network raised more than $7 million in one evening.
How unique are charter waiting lists?
Charters make much of the length of their student waiting lists. But the reality of New York City schools is that tens of thousands of students at all levels end up on waiting lists or completely frozen out of the schools they would like to attend.
More than half of the city’s nearly 64,000 eighth graders did not get into their first choice for high school last year and 7,200 — more than 10 percent of the total — did not get into a single school they applied to. Approximately 20,000 students who take the test each year for the specialized high schools do not get into one of these schools.
The same is true for thousands of elementary school students who apply for slots in competitive middle schools, and for thousands more families who cannot find space in gifted programs or whose kids end up waitlisted for kindergarten in their neighborhood schools.
Students can and do get off waiting lists in district schools, which generally backfill empty spaces in higher grades if and when students transfer out; most charters, in contrast, almost never accept transfer students off their “waitlists” beyond their early grades.
Does admission to a charter guarantee academic success?
Student scores plummeted across the city last year when the state introduced new tests based on the Common Core standards. But in reading, charters schools as a whole scored under the citywide average (26.4 citywide average, charters 25.1).
Even highly touted charters had classes with significant problems. Democracy Prep’s Harlem charter had fewer than 4 percent of 6th-graders proficient in reading and fewer than 12 percent passing math. Fewer than 12 percent of 5th-graders at KIPP Star College Prep were proficient in math and just 16 percent passed the reading test, while 11 percent of their 7th-graders scored proficient in language arts and 14 percent in math.
These results come despite the fact that, as a group, charter schools serve a smaller proportion of the city’s neediest students, including special ed and English language learners. A 2012 report by the charters’ own association — the New York City Charter School Center — showed that on average, charter schools had only 6 percent English language learners, compared with 15 percent in district schools.
A recent IBO study showed that an astonishing 80 percent of special education students who start in charter schools in kindergarten are gone by the third grade.
Student attrition is a particular issue for the Success network, whose schools tend to have far higher student suspension rates than their neighborhood schools; they also see their class cohorts shrink as many poor-performing students leave or are counseled out and not replaced.
How can we level the playing field?
If charter schools are serious about playing an important role in New York City education, they should take four immediate steps to level the playing field between them and district schools, as outlined by UFT President Michael Mulgrew below in an article reprinted from the New York Daily News:
For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has singled out charter schools for special treatment, a strategy that embittered many ordinary New York City public school parents and children. Here are four steps charter schools should take now to end that divisive relationship:
Serve the neediest kids
State law requires that charters serve the same percentage of poor and special-needs children, along with English-language learners, as their local district schools do. Unfortunately, many charter schools ignore this requirement. Meanwhile, parents complain that special-needs children and students who struggle academically have been “counseled out” of charters, most of them ending up in local district schools while the charters hold onto students with better scores. A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that a shocking 80% of special-needs kids who enroll in city charter schools as kindergartners leave their schools by the third grade.
Be good neighbors
The Bloomberg administration often shoehorned charters into public schools. Because some charters didn’t want their children interacting with public school kids, gymnasiums and cafeterias would be limited to charter students at certain hours. Worst of all, students in dilapidated classrooms with outmoded equipment and few supplies watched with envy as the incoming charters spent small fortunes on renovations, paint jobs, new desks and equipment, books and supplies. If they want to be good neighbors, charters should share the wealth — and make sure all students sharing one school building have the same opportunities and environment.
Open their books
If charter operators truly want a new start, they need to abandon the lawsuit they have filed against the state controller seeking to block his ability to audit their books. Parents and taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going.
Stop treating children as profit centers
Charters receive taxpayer dollars. In addition, many get donations from major hedge funders, have millions of dollars in bank accounts and pay their chief executives — who typically oversee a small group of schools — as much as half a million dollars a year, along with lavish benefits. Charters with such resources need to pay rent, as Mayor de Blasio has suggested. And charters should set realistic salary caps for their executives and appropriate limits on payments to consultants.
A new report by the leading organization for international education data finds that public school teachers in the United States earn only about two-thirds of what similarly-educated U.S. workers earn, while teachers in most of the rest of the developed world earn 80 to 89 percent of their peer professionals.
In addition, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, a member organization of 34 countries across Europe, South America, and the Far East, found that U.S. teacher salaries increased only about 3 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a 17 to 20 percent increase for teachers in other developed countries.
Public elementary school teachers in the U.S. worked an average of 1,097 hours in 2011, almost 40 percent more than the 790 hours for the average teacher in the OECD countries. U.S. high school teachers worked 1,051 hours, some 60 percent more than the 664 hours for upper secondary level teachers in other OECD countries.
Other education indicators in the OECD report, Education At A Glance 2013, found troubling news at both the beginning and late stages of U.S. education.
Just half of 3-year-olds and 78 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of early childhood education in the United States, compared with OECD averages of 68 percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of 4-year-olds. At the upper end of education, what the report reveals is that college attainment amongst all U.S. adults ages 25 to 64 puts us fifth in the world, but zeroing in on just 24 to 34 year olds — young adults — pushes the U.S. rank to 12th.
Finally, the proportion of young adults who were “NEET” (“not employed or in education or training”) increased between 2008 and 2011, to 15.9 percent of youth ages 15 to 29, a shade higher than the OECD average, which includes economically devastated countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy.
In other words, the U.S. education system, while mighty, is slipping or standing still, while Korea, Japan, the Russian Federation and Ireland surge ahead in the percentages of its populations that are college educated; Spain, Mexico, France and Belgium enroll far more young children in pre-primary education; and Australia, Israel, Poland and even Portugal have raised teacher pay significantly while U.S. teachers have seen almost nothing for a decade.
The Independent Budget Office, in a report released on April 10, finds that the Bloomberg-era school allocation formula, known as Fair Student Funding, actually underfunds 94 percent of schools and “has a ways to go” towards creating a readily-understood and transparent formula.
The IBO report says the formula, which gives schools per-student funding weighted for need levels (extra dollars for an English language learner, for example) has more closely tied school funding with student needs. For example, middle school students, who were historically short-changed, now get an amount closer to their actual formula needs. But overall, schools are coming up short, the budget office writes.
“Effective per-capita [per student] funding is below per capita funding under the FSF formula in each year,” according to the report, which means that actual per-student funding in schools is generally below what the DOE’s own formula says they need — “a reflection of both the limited funding available and how available funds were distributed.”
Students funded below what the formula called for last year and at least two more out of the last five years were 1) middle school students below academic standards; 2) elementary and high school ELLs; and 3) high school collaborative team teaching students.
So as a budget strategy to direct money to students with the highest needs, Fair Student Funding doesn’t appear to have worked so well.
The UFT’s issue with Fair Student Funding was its potential effect on a school that had more senior teachers. Waving the banner of equity, the DOE began funding schools for their average teacher salary rather than the system wide average. This amounted to charging schools for the actual cost of salaries at their schools. The idea was to equalize funding for poor and wealthier schools. But the effect was to penalize some schools, forcing them to leave vacancies unfilled, raise class sizes and avoid hiring experienced teachers in order to meet budget.
But a 2007 IBO report found that teacher salaries were not even close to the main cause of inequities in school budgets. The main reason for disparities in spending was the numbers of students per teacher, it found, not teacher salary. That argument is not made in the new report. In fact, the new report perpetuates the idea that teacher salaries cause the inequities in school funding, a myth the IBO previously disproved.
The report is a major contribution on an important issue. If Fair Student Funding isn’t succeeding in creating fairness or sufficient funding, what is it actually accomplishing? Of course, the final irony is that Bloomberg’s insistence on principal empowerment means that when all the formulas have gone to bed, principals spend their budgets however they want, with little oversight of which students are getting extra help.
As we noted then, questions were quickly raised about how the Foundation’s conservative positions on issues such as the right to organize might influence the recipients of these huge grants. (For background on the Walton family and their foundation’s positions on education, this new website offers a great primer and lots of helpful links.) Now that the full list has been released, the evidence confirms that many organizations active in New York City and New York State received large grants from the Waltons last year — including a million-dollar grant to Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network, listed under the Foundation’s efforts to “Shape Public Policy.” The huge amounts in play here (over $159 million nationally in 2011 alone) should give pause to those concerned about the influence of corporate money in school reform in our community.
This video from The Story of Stuff Project asks: “Why is there always enough money for the “dinosaur economy” — from Big Oil to bailouts to big banks — but when it comes to building a better future we’re supposedly broke?”
Michael Mulgrew has an op-ed in today’s Daily News on why the State Senate and Assembly must extend the state tax on upper-income earners.
Hedge fund magnate John Paulson — who reportedly made $5 billion personally last year — reacted recently to Occupy Wall Street protesters by talking about how much the top 1% of New York City families pay in income taxes. What he didn’t talk about was how the same 1% made nearly half (44%) of all the income in the city, or that when all state and local taxes are taken into account, the richest taxpayers in fact pay a lower percentage of their total income in taxes than do people in the middle.
Meanwhile, with unemployment levels stubbornly high, median family income declining and public services under budget pressure, times are getting tougher for almost everyone else.
Public school class sizes in New York City — already far higher than in surrounding communities — are getting bigger still. Our annual survey in September showed that an estimated one-quarter of the city’s public school children were in one or more oversize classes as the school year began. After-school programs are disappearing. Art and music have become things of the past in our schools. Hundreds of school aides are on the unemployment line.
Overall, the Foundation’s largest grants last year went almost exclusively to organizations which support vouchers and charter schools, including over $2 million dollars to two New York state organizations with the most explicit commitments to supporting for-profit corporate charter schools and weakening teachers unions — the New York Charter Schools Association and the Brighter Choice Foundation. And interestingly enough, the $1.3 million that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network received from Walton almost exactly matches the amount the Network spent on advertising her schools last year — an average of $1,300 per new student:
Walton Foundation 2010 Grant Totals (for Selected Groups):
Teach for America (National) — $16,652,436
KIPP Foundation — $8,650,000
New Teacher Project — $2,250,000
Education Reform Now, Inc. — $1,325,000
Success Charter Network — $1,310,000
New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) — $1,045,459
A postal record, obtained by a Times Union Freedom of Information request, lists the customer who paid for the mailings as “School Performance.” Tom Carroll, who founded the Brighter Choice Foundation — which supports all of the city’s 11 charter schools — is on the board of School Performance Inc., according to the most recent public records available. Chris Bender, executive director of Brighter Choice, has also served on the School Performance board.
Two mailings sent out by Mail Works, a direct to mail company, went to 32,178 city residents, records show. Postage alone cost $6,766. However, the total cost spent by the charter affiliate to defeat the Albany budget is likely far greater because a third mailing went out and the push poll was conducted over a few weeks. The professionally printed cards could have also cost thousands of dollars.
Rally at City Hall, followed by a march down Broadway and through Wall Street
Financial institutions wrecked the economy, and we paid for it. Now, if the mayor gets his way, they will get another round of tax breaks, on top of record profits and bonuses. The UFT will join scores of other community groups and unions to say no to layoffs and cuts and to demand that the big banks and millionaires pay their fair share. Our assembly location, City Hall, is one of eight different gathering points. Together, we will all converge with a unified message to demand a fair budget.
Class sizes citywide rose a average 2 percent, or 0.6 student per class. The increases were especially large in elementary schools, up to 23.7 students per class from 22.9 last year, and middle schools, up to 27 kids per class from 26.1 last year. High schools had a small increase.
The 4.2% budget cut is to blame this year, but this marks the third consecutive year of increases. Through 2008, class sizes were decreasing — very slowly, but they were decreasing. But since then they’ve been up in every grade every year. Since 2008, the average third grade class has swelled by 13 percent. The average first grade class is 9 percent larger. This wasn’t what the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision was supposed to bring about.