Smaller class advocates hope issue gets on ballot

By Elizabeth O’Brien

A coalition of educators and other advocates, including the United Federation of Teachers, has gathered more than 115,000 signatures in an effort to put smaller class sizes on the ballot this November.

Coalition members filed their petitions last week with the city clerk’s office, calling for the creation of a Charter Revision Commission that would evaluate whether the city should set legal limits for class size in New York City public schools. This would eventually involve an addition to the City Charter, an extensive document outlining the city’s governance and political structure.

“Class size has been the number one priority of parents for a very long time, and we really believe we can do something to make sure” the Charter revision happens, said Leonie Haimson, chairperson of an advocacy group that belongs to the coalition, New Yorkers for Smaller Classes.

With more than 30 students in many city classrooms, the average class size in the five boroughs is up to 36 percent higher than in school districts in the rest of the state, advocates said. They have cited research showing the effectiveness of smaller class sizes, both on the quality of education and on reducing future costs of unemployment, public assistance, teen pregnancy and crime.

Voters could be asked to decide this November whether a Charter Revision Commission should be created. If the commission is formed and it approves the addition, voters will have a chance in November of 2004 to decide whether they want class size limits written into the Charter.

This system for shrinking class size would bypass mayoral control over the city’s educational policy, a power shift that has given Mayor Mike Bloomberg the unprecedented chance to overhaul the city’s public school system, starting with a plan to pare down the bureaucracy and implement a uniform curriculum in most schools when classes resume on Sept. 8.

“The politicians have shown themselves incapable of handling this as it should be handled,” said Haimson, whose child will be beginning kindergarten at the Village’s P.S. 41 this year.

But the mayor could still prevent the class size initiative from appearing on the ballot this fall. If the mayor’s own Charter Revision Commission poses a ballot question on nonpartisan elections as expected, that could bump the question of creating a new commission off the ballot. A Charter revision question, which represents a more advanced stage of the Charter review process, takes precedence over a decision on whether to create a commission at all, said Jordan Barowitz, a spokesperson for the mayor.

Jerry Goldfeder, a lawyer for the coalition, has said that he would challenge any efforts to block the class size question from the ballot. Goldfeder was on vacation and unavailable for comment on this article.

Haimson said that exact size limits would be for the voters to decide, but added that her advocacy group would likely recommend numbers chosen when Florida voters passed a similar measure last year: classes no bigger than 18 students for kindergarten through third grade, 22 for grades four through seven, and 25 in the highest grades.

Class sizes in the old Community School District 1, which includes parts of the East Village and the Lower East Side, tend to be smaller on average than most classes citywide. Dolores Schaefer, president of the Community School Board in District 1, said that she supported the initiative to reduce class sizes. But smaller classes may not be a practical short-term way to improve education, Schaefer said, because it means more classrooms and more teachers.

“It’s not going to be physically possible to do in overcrowded districts,” Schaefer said.

One quicker way to help teachers and students cope with overcrowding would be to put an extra adult into each large class, Schaefer said. Paraprofessional aides can greatly improve the quality of education in the classroom by helping the teachers focus on instruction instead of on discipline or administrative tasks, advocates have said.

Assemblymember Steven Sanders, chairperson of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said that adding an aide to crowded classrooms could help teachers and students in the near future. But the best solution for alleviating overcrowding is to create more classrooms, Sanders said.

Within the next year, the city will likely receive an infusion of cash from the state, thanks to a June state appeals court ruling that New York State’s method of financing public education shortchanged New York City schoolchildren. The Legislature and Governor George Pataki have until July 30, 2004, to figure out how to provide city students a “sound basic education,” the ruling said.

“I think we have a job ahead of us,” Sanders said.

Money resulting from this decision could help build new schools, Sanders suggested. In the meantime, New Yorkers for Smaller Classes will work to educate the public about its ballot initiative, Haimson said.

To that end, the coalition plans to open a Manhattan office this fall, Haimson said, most likely in a space on William St. Parents who wish to volunteer several hours a week should call 212-674-7320 or e-mail Haimson at leonie@att.net.

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