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Know Your Rights
Source: Campaign for Fiscal Equity
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

CFE Study Shows Parents and Policymakers Can’t Rely on City School Capacity Stats

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) unveiled a highly critical study today outside of the City’s Department of Education (DOE) headquarters. The study – titled “Capacity Counts: Demonstrating the Need for Adequate, Transparent Data” – details serious flaws in the City’s school capacity numbers and calls for immediate changes to its reporting system so that all students are provided with the best possible conditions to learn.

According to the City’s annual Enrollment Capacity Utilization (ECU) reports or “Blue Books” – the City’s official word on the number of seats available for students in each school – more than 130,000 seats were added over the past 12 years. In fact, the City added just 80,000 seats during that period—leaving 50,000 unaccounted for, and indicating the reports meant to inform parents and determine everything from classroom resources to school closings are shockingly inaccurate.

“These wildly inaccurate reports lead parents to believe that their child’s school has ample capacity and therefore provides a better environment for learning. Policymakers outside the DOE are also operating in the dark when making critical decisions about the construction of new schools and the co-location of schools in supposedly underutilized buildings,” said Helaine Doran, Deputy Director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and an author of CFE’s capacity study. “In fact, CFE is concerned that many “new” seats that are added to schools’ totals seem to be replacing valuable learning space instead of adding to it. The City takes away a library or an art studio to add another classroom as a stop-gap measure to reduce the appearance of overcrowding, and our kids suffer the consequences.”

“CFE successfully argued in our courts that there was widespread inequity in our education system because all students did not have access to an adequate level of resources to achieve academically. These findings included both classroom programs and services as well as quality facilities,” said CFE Executive Director Geri Palast. “In response to the court order, not only did the Governor and the State Legislature provide an additional $3.25 billion in operations funding to the City education budget, but they also directed that more than $11.2 billion be added to augment capital costs so that each student could be provided with safe and sufficient instructional space to learn. The courts also raised concerns that the ECU reports masked actual building conditions. Now, years later, we have found that the City still does not provide transparent, adequate, and accurate data on how school space is being used—and the City is in danger of violating the spirit of the courts’ decisions until it does.”

Today, City Comptroller John Liu announced his office had begun an audit of the ECU reports based on information CFE provided to the Comptroller’s Office through its open audit program. Upon review, CFE’s data raised concerns regarding the adequacy of controls over the collection, analysis and reporting of capacity and utilization data and the desirability of independently checking the accuracy and reliability of the Blue Book.

“As a parent of a public school student in Queens, the most overcrowded borough in the city, I am concerned about the lack of transparency in how DOE measures capacity at our schools,” said Maria Moncada, member of Make the Road New York. “Overcrowding affects my son academically, because he has to eat lunch at 10 AM, leaving him hungry later in the day when he has to concentrate. He also enjoys playing music, but does not have access to a music class. It is important that DOE commit to ending the negative effects of overcrowding in our schools, and create lasting change so that it does not occur in the future”.

“As a parent at PS 15 in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how the City’s flawed system for evaluating school space and capacity for students can negatively affect our children,” said Lydia Bellahcene. “Based on data from the City’s ECU reports, our public school is now scheduled to pack in an expanded charter school even though it was clear to parents that that wouldn’t be possible without eliminating space and resources for existing students. An independent evaluation arranged by parents showed conclusively that we were right. But we should be able to rely on the City to make fair and accurate evaluations so that all students have the best chance at a great education.”

“Five years ago, parents from CEJ fought to get science labs built in middle schools across the city, where many 8th graders had to take a lab section on the science Regents exams without ever stepping foot in a lab. Now, science labs are being dismantled and turned into classrooms because the Blue Book says that our schools can fit more children than they actually can,” said New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) parent leader Regina Castro. “Our neighborhood schools must have the space to improve and thrive; they need rooms to provide small group tutoring, and the enrichment classes that keep our students engaged. This is why CEJ stands together with CFE in fighting to make sure that parents receive transparent, accurate and complete information.”

In the landmark 2001 CFE decision, Judge Leland DeGrasse specifically cited flaws in the City’s capacity reports, stating that “Overcrowding is even worse than indicated because the ECU [Enrollment Capacity Utilization] formulas actually overstate schools’ capacity…by adding to school’s capacity non-classroom space if such space is in fact used for classrooms.” The Court of Appeals agreed. “One symptom of an overcrowded school system is the encroachment of ordinary classroom activities into what would otherwise be specialized space: libraries, laboratories, auditoriums and the like. There was considerable evidence of a shortage of such spaces,” the judges wrote.

Yet CFE’s report released today shows that the City has still not taken action to correct the issues put forward by the courts. Elected officials and groups representing parents and educators – including the Alliance for Quality Education, New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, Make the Road New York, Coalition for Asian American Children and Families, Advocates for Children, New York Immigration Coalition, Education Voters of New York, United Federation of Teachers, and others – are joining CFE in calling for immediate changes.

According to CFE’s study, the ECU reports’ totals for individual schools and districts often increase or decrease dramatically from year to year without any explanation—demonstrating further the high likelihood that the City’s numbers are incorrect. For instance, in some schools significant capacity cuts in one year were inexplicably followed by significant gains in the following year and then followed by another round of cuts.

The solution is to require the collection of specific data, establish a system for checking accuracy, and then making the information available to the public in a usable form, elected officials and advocates said today.

“I want to commend The Campaign for Fiscal Equity for its new report on capacity numbers in New York City’s schools, and the serious flaws it has uncovered in how those numbers are computed,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer. “It is abundantly clear from these new findings that we are still not getting the honest and accurate numbers we need to make intelligent decisions about public education in our city. Getting the right numbers once and for all is not some idle bookkeeping exercise: The educational future of 1.1 million students in New York City depends on us knowing how much space we do – and don’t have – to properly educate them.”

“It is outrageous that the court’s findings have been ignored by the Mayor and Chancellor for nearly 10 years. I know that Comptroller Liu’s audit will support what I have been saying, along with advocates from all over the city: some of our most overcrowded schools are reported at less than 100% utilization in the Blue Book,” said City Council Education Committee Chair Robert Jackson. “Until this is fixed, not only is the Blue Book wrong, but so is the capital plan’s projected need for new schools. Billions of our precious public dollars are being spent according to parameters that are not accurate and do not address the areas of greatest need first.”

“The CFE report highlights concerns about the New York City school system,” said Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan. “Accurate reporting is essential to creating a healthy learning environment. I look forward to working with CFE and other elected and school officials to make sure that each and every student in New York City is placed in a school and classroom with the best learning conditions possible.”

“When the DOE makes a decision that fundamentally changes how schools operate, such as co-locations, they need to make sure the facts are right. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity’s report reveals significant inaccurate reporting of available school space, which can have serious effects for our school system including increases in overcrowding and greater confusion for parents, students and teachers if their school is co-located,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

“Any educator can tell you that school overcrowding hampers education. And parents will tell you they don’t want their kids struggling to learn in schools with huge class sizes and hallways so crowded that students can barely move to get to their next class,” said United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew. “Our children deserve better conditions, and parents are entitled to accurate information in order to decide what is best for their kids.”

“The recent debates over school co-locations have shown us how important the issue of school capacity is,” said Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children. “At the heart of every one of those disputes was a disagreement over the school’s true capacity. DOE always thought there was more room, and parents involved more closely with the school vehemently disagreed.”

The elected officials echoed CFE’s recommendations for reform of the capacity reporting system either through working with DOE or legislation, if necessary. Specifically, CFE called for: an audit of the reports; the publication of internal documents used to determine schools’ overall utilization; DOE to track the use of all types of school space, including all specialized, shared and support spaces, by using a common checklist for each school’s evaluation; and an overhaul of the ECU reporting system to provide a more accurate and verifiable picture of school capacity in the City.