Thursday, January 16, 2020

Class Size Lawsuit: A Trip to Albany WIth Leonie

Monday morning I met up with Leonie Haimson at Penn Station to take Amtrak to Albany for a hearing in Appellate Court on the class size lawsuit. It was a short hearing at 1 PM in front of 5 judges - maybe 20 minutes to a half hour. Lawyer Wendy Lecker presented our side and was opposed by a state lawyer from Attorney General Leticia James' office and a lawyer from the city corp council. Yes Virginia, our city and state government leaders don't give a shit about class size.

Then again, the UFT refused to join in the suit so what does that tell you?

We were joined at the hearing by State Senator Robert Jackson, a hero of education in this city and state to many activists, an original initiator of the CFE lawsuit over a dozen years ago joined by some of the parents involved in the current suit. After the hearing Jackson invited us up to his office to chat and snack and I did some video interview with all the participants (will have that available in a few days if my old cranky computers don't break down.)

I learned a lot about the case and let me do a quick summary before Leonie explains it in more detail below.

The judges ruled in the original CFE from 2007 that the Bloomberg-Klein admin had 5 years - till 2012 - to come up with a class size reduction plan. They ignored that provision and now have the nerve to claim that the mandate expired when they didn't come up with the plan in 2012 and now they don't have to. That's like someone who is convicted of a crime and sentenced to 5 years but goes on the lam for those years and then comes back claiming his sentence expired so he doesn't have to serve time.

Here's Leonie with more details on her blog:

Our class size lawsuit argued in the Appellate Court yesterday!

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with Sen. Robert Jackson and attorney Wendy Lecker
Yesterday, the class size lawsuit against the city and the state that we filed more than a year ago, along with nine NYC parents from every borough and the Alliance for Quality Education, was heard in the Appellate court in Albany.
Our pro bono attorney, Wendy Lecker of the Education Law Center, did a fabulous job, those of us in the courtroom agreed, which included two of the parent plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Litza Stark of Queens and Johanna Garcia of Manhattan, along with Johanna’s daughter Hailey, back from her first semester in college. NY Senator Robert Jackson, who spearheaded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, was also there to support us, as well as retired teacher Norm Scott.

A panel of five judges listened intently as Wendy related how the NYC Department of Education had violated the state Contracts for Excellence law passed in 2007, which specifically mandates that the city lower average class sizes in all grades over five years – but instead, class sizes had sharply increased so that they are now far larger than they were when the law was first passed.  In response, the attorneys for the city and state tried to argue that since the five years outlined in the original law had lapsed, there was no longer any requirement for the DOE to lower class size.

Yet as Wendy pointed out,  the state legislature renews and reauthorizes the C4E law every year, including its class size mandate, with no specific end point for when the city’s obligations would cease;  thus this is indeed a continuing requirement on the part of the DOE.
The attorneys for the city and state also claimed that the court has no jurisdiction over this matter, but that the Commissioner of Education has the sole power to determine whether the city had adequately complied with the law.  Yet as Wendy counter-argued, the court indeed has the authority to decide whether the Commissioner has accurately interpreted the language of the statute, and the court's authority to do so in regards the C4E law was specifically re-confirmed in 2011 by the Appellate judges in 2011. By essentially nullifying the city’s class size obligation under the law, Wendy said, the Commissioner had essentially usurped the legislature’s role.

Though one cannot predict how the court will rule, those of us in the room felt that Wendy’s arguments were far stronger than those of the city or state attorneys, who did not even try to dispute the facts in the case: that class sizes had increased sharply since 2007, and this had unfairly deprived NYC students of an quality education. 

In any event, the Appellate Court will likely not issue any decision until this summer at least, and we are not content to sit back and wait for this to occur.  Instead, we are urging the Mayor and the Council to put a down payment on the quality of our children’s education by allocating specific funding for class size reduction, starting next year in the early grades and in struggling schools.  More on how you can help with this soon.

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