back to the drawing board

Court dismisses union's effort to force city to lower class sizes

The city teachers union will have to go to the State Education Department to protest rising class sizes in New York City, rather than skip straight to the courts, after an appeals court today dismissed a 2010 suit by the union.

The suit aimed at forcing New York City to dedicate a certain pot of state funds toward making class sizes smaller. The union charged that the city misused the funds, sending them to offset budget cuts rather than using them as they were intended — as a means of reducing class sizes. The NAACP also signed onto the suit.

But in a decision handed down today, an appeals court unanimously dismissed the union’s suit, saying that the union must take its complaints to the State Education Department before going to court. (Read the full decision below.)

The union president, Michael Mulgrew, vowed to continue protesting rising class sizes. “Lowering class size is a key issue for the parents and teachers of New York City and we intend to pursue it vigorously,” Mulgrew said in a statement this afternoon.

The appeals court did not address the heart of the disagreement: whether the city actually did, as the union charges, improperly fail to lower class sizes — and use Contracts for Excellence funds instead to stave off budget cuts. At issue is the state Contracts for Excellence funding stream, and in particular, a specific clause forcing New York City to write a plan to reduce class sizes.

What’s not disputed is that class sizes have creeped up for the last two years even as funds aimed at bringing them down have flooded into schools. Class sizes for the coming school year aren’t yet available, but all signs point to likely increases, which principals are preparing for. It’s not clear, however, that the Department of Education deliberately sought to prevent schools from lowering class sizes by sending funds elsewhere.

The Contracts for Excellence funds go straight to school principals, who can decide how to allocate them. The Department of Education argues that it’s possible for schools to invest the funds in exactly the kind of policies that should reduce class sizes — like hiring new teachers — and still fail to reduce average class sizes. Here’s an example offered by an official in 2009:

Take Bronx elementary school PS 57, which reported that it spent $190,000 to open new classes. Let’s be generous and say that the money could pay for three additional teachers. That could go a long way toward reducing class sizes in three grade levels. But would it necessarily lower the entire school’s average class size?

No. That would depend on how many students enrolled at the school, especially in grades and subjects that didn’t get new teachers. It would also depend on the rest of the school’s budget outlook, which, as school officials pointed out when they first released basic class-size data, has not been so good lately. And it would require the school to hire only inexpensive, and therefore inexperienced, teachers. In fact, PS 57 did see its average class size drop by more than one student. But another school, PS 54 in the Bronx, received $185,000 but saw class sizes shoot up on average by about 3 students per class.

Supporting the union’s argument, on the other hand, is a report by Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News suggesting that the city revised its class-size reduction plan in response to the tough budget climate. The report cites a letter from then-state education commissioner David Steiner signing off on the changes.

The letter, obtained by GothamSchools, signs off on the changes, with two caveats that are a bit too bureaucratic for me to summarize right now. Read the letter here.

In a statement, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that the Department of Education has “remained committed to minimizing the growth of class size in all of our schools.” He cited as evidence the fact that the state approved the city’s Contracts for Excellence plans while the law was in effect. (It went off the books this past school year.)

The dismissal is the second legal defeat for the union and the NAACP in the last week. On Friday, a judge rejected the groups‘ suit asking courts to stop the city from closing struggling schools and giving charter schools district space.

The full decision:
Appellate Court Dismissal UFT Class Size Suit

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede