Report Education

Finding Space For A Sound Basic Education

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November 29, 2004

One key component of a sound basic education is adequate classroom space. Public schools in New York City fall short of this standard because classrooms in some schools now are over capacity, some classrooms are in temporary structures that are substandard, and space is not readily available for expanded enrollment for pre-kindergarten classes.

As part of its “costing out” study, the CFE examined the capital needs of the New York City public schools. They found that $14.7 billion (in 2003 dollars) was needed to provide New York City students with the facilities needed for a “sound basic education” as defined by their panel of experts.

Of the total, $12.3 billion is for new construction. This includes $3.9 billion to build new capacity to accommodate 68,200 students projected to be in overcrowded classrooms, and $2.7 billion as part of a five-year program to provide space for classes smaller than current sizes, but still less than the CFE’s requirements for a “sound basic education”. Another $5.7 billion is for new capacity to accommodate more than 93,900 students who would require new classrooms for pre-kindergarten classes and new classrooms in order to allow a maximum class size of 16 in grades K through 5. The CFE does not recommend that the latter $5.7 billion investment be made until after the other projects are funded, a delay of at least five years.

The CFE’s analysis is reasonable in assessing the needs relative to its standards, but its two-stage recommended capital program is deficient in two ways. First, it delays achieving the conditions for sound basic education too long. Its program would not begin to establish some standards for at least five years. It is unlikely there would be adequate space for pre-kindergarten classes and smaller elementary school classes until another decade has passed. Second, it is far more expensive than is necessary. There are more efficient ways to provide the needed space, and these options should be part of any court approved plan.

The two options are redistricting schools and operating schools on year-round schedules. As explained in the report, rezoning would permit more complete use of existing capacity and provide classroom space for about 136,000 students. Changes in the school calendar in order to use school buildings 12 months per year would generate space for another 135,000 students, even after closing down 17,000 seats in transportable buildings. Together these strategies more than address the long-term shortage of 216,000 seats identified by the CFE, and would do so in a more timely manner and at less cost. These strategies deserve careful attention, even if social or political barriers make full implementation difficult.

This paper was prepared as support for the full report, "Can New York Get an A in School Finance Reform?" The research was made possible by generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and by designated contributions from CBC Trustees.

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Finding Space for a Sound Basic Education