Monday, May 22, 2006

Whose Class Size is it Anyway?

In less than seven days we’ve lived through an emotional seesaw when it comes to class size.

Last weekend, Randi Weingarten announced a new push for smaller classes on behalf of the UFT and our coalition, including a million dollar ad campaign. On Thursday, teachers and parents stood outside schools,
handing out flyers about the need to reduce class size in our schools.

Then on Friday, much sooner than anyone anticipated, Judge Lewis Stone of the State Supreme Court issued a negative decision, blocking our class size charter amendment from appearing on the ballot. Needless to say, we will appeal this decision.

In his decision, the Judge begins by saying that all we would need to prove to get our amendment on the ballot is to show that the State legislature intended to delegate powers over education to the City when it approved Mayoral control of our schools.

But then the Judge proceeds to argue that the Legislature did not really mean to do this when it gave the mayor the power to appoint the Chancellor and most of the Board of Education at will. Thus, city voters should not be able to decide on class size policy, since only the Board of Education (now the rubberstamp Panel on Educational Policy) and the Chancellor can make these decisions, and they derive all their authority from the State – not the Mayor, even though he can fire them at any time.

In support of this unconvincing claim, the decision quotes the Assembly’s written statement at the time of the change in governance, saying that there will remain a “balance of authority” and “a meaningful role for the city board,” now the rubberstamp Panel on Educational Policy. Yet at the time, this statement was nothing more than a fig leaf, and since then, it has been shown to be a complete fiction. From the moment that Mayoral control was adopted, there has been no counterbalancing authority, no system of checks and balances, and if Judge Stone’s decision stands on appeal, the Mayor will continue to wield almost dictatorial powers until and unless the State Legislature makes it clear that it should be otherwise.

Strangely enough, the Mayor’s continued ability to exert almost unlimited control is based upon the legal fiction that he doesn’t possess authority at all when it comes to our schools, a claim which anyone who follows the cell phone debate knows is ridiculous -- because otherwise, city voters could restrict his actions.

Another argument the Judge makes is that since the Legislature acted to change school governance without a “home rule message”, that is, without the consent of the City Council, which is required in any change in laws that affect the affairs of a local government, this proves that the adoption of Mayoral control did not delegate state power over education to the City.

Makes your head spin, doesn’t it? I’m happy to forward the decision itself to anyone who’d like to read it. The city’s written response, late Friday, was as follows:

“While no one disputes that smaller class size is a highly desirable
goal, this referendum simply wasn’t a sound way to get there. Judge
Stone’s decision recognizes that, while recent changes in the State’s
Education Law have given the Mayor greater political accountability for
the performance of the City’s education officials, as a legal matter,
education remains a State function. The Chancellor and the Department
of Education are the local officials responsible for administering the
educational system on a day-to-day basis in New York City.”

Yet the reality is that the Mayor and the Chancellor continue to dispute that smaller classes are a desirable goal, through their actions and noncompliance with state law.

The Judge didn’t mention that though education may remain a core state issue everywhere in the state, this doesn’t prevent elected school boards elsewhere from being allowed to budget for smaller classes for their schools if they so choose. Nor does the decision deal with the fact that it is the Mayor who prepares the education budget each year, not the Chancellor, with separate amounts allocated for everything but class size reduction – so how class size and other educational policies could be out of his control is difficult to comprehend.

Let’s pray that the Appellate Court and/or the Court of Appeals overturns this decision, which is based on a politically convenient fiction for the Mayor, who can exert complete control over our schools when it suits him, but then legally discounts any such authority when it might allow others, including city voters, to have a voice in educational policy. The Daily News summaries of the events on Thursday and the Court’s decision follow.


Leonie Haimson
Class Size Matters
124 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011

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