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Rebell Op-Ed: Rush to slash class size will hurt our schools

After 14 years of litigation, New York State is about to make history by sending over $7 billion in extra funding to schools statewide over the next four years. Equally significant is an accompanying accountability system, geared to ensure that this money will be well-spent.

New York City and 50 or so other districts slated to receive a large infusion must agree to a "Contract for Excellence" - which requires them to provide details on how they will spend the money in the five arenas that are considered most likely to improve student performance: improving the quality of teachers and principals; reducing class sizes; increasing student "time-on-task"; restructuring middle and high schools; and providing kindergarten or pre-K for the full day.

It's a good plan of action, but unfortunately the legislature tacked on an additional mandate, at the urging of the teachers union and others. That requires New York City alone to specify to the state education commissioner how its average class sizes will be reduced over the next five years. The commissioner says he intends to convene a panel of experts to determine what the class sizes must be.

This seemingly benign mandate could, in fact, turn the Contract for Excellence into a recipe for failure.

As co-counsel for those who brought the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, I know how important class size reduction ultimately will be. But improving the quality of our teachers and principals must be priority No. 1. And a premature class-size reduction mandate is likely to lower the general quality of the teaching staff at a time when we desperately need to be raising it.

A few years ago, California went down the road of precipitous class-size reduction. The state legislature there passed a bill that offered huge incentives to schools to cut class sizes. The immediate need for thousands of new teachers led, according to U.S. News and World Report, to the hiring of "Nordstrom clerks, a former clown and several chiropractors." A California Department of Education report concluded that "the hiring of many new teachers taxed schools' capacity to support and mentor teachers....Particularly troubling was the proliferation of emergency-permit teachers in high poverty areas."

Without a doubt, if in New York, as in California, the general quality of the teaching staff declines because of a surge in new hiring, the hard-to-staff schools - whose kids generally have the greatest education needs - will be the ones who will get the clowns and the chiropractors.

This raises another major concern. A mandated average class-size reduction plan is likely to be applied across the board to virtually all schools in the system, while it is clear that we should, at least at first, target the students with the greatest education deficits. Let's not forget that it was for them that the CFE case was waged and won, and that the Court of Appeals invalidated the old funding system to ensure that funding follows need.

When they meet tomorrow, the Board of Regents should approve regulations that allow class-size reductions to be limited to low-performing schools and to follow improvements in teacher quality and the availability of adequate space.

The chancellor should then sponsor a series of meaningful public engagement forums to give the city as a whole a chance to weigh in on the class-size plan - and on all of his other ideas for spending the CFE funds. All New Yorkers have a vital stake in how this money is going to be used, and public support is essential for implementation of the final plan, whatever form it takes.

A copy of this article can be found in the NY Daily News website at: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2007/04/23/2007-04-23_rush_to_slash_class_size_will_hurt_our_s.html
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Read  The Equity Campaign's Recommendations for Commissioner's Regulations

 
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