City Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents a broad swath of Midtown East and the Upper East Side, on Wednesday introduced a bill requiring expanded disclosure on school enrollment, part of an effort to address a space crunch that has half of the city's public school students attending overcrowded schools.
Under the terms of the proposed bill, the Department of Education would make publicly available aggregated and disaggregated data on the number of applications and admissions granted for each school in the city, as well as enrollment numbers and expected open seats for the next school year. This data would be further broken down by grade level and the community school and council districts of residence for students, as well as their zip codes.
"We need to better track what schools people are applying to, how many folks are being turned away from schools, and have a better sense of where they're ending up so we can re-adjust programming," Kallos told Gothamist.
According to a committee report on the legislation, approximately half of the DOE's 1.1 million students are enrolled in overcrowded schools, defined as schools where enrollment exceeds intended maximum capacity. That breaks down to 54 percent of elementary and middle school students and 47 percent of high school students attending overcrowded schools.
With New York City’s population at a record high and continuing to grow, the DOE is fighting an ongoing battle to keep up with demand for school seats. According to the report, the city's most recent school construction commitment, which calls for adding a total of 83,000 seats by 2020, falls short of an estimated need for 85,000 new seats—and that doesn't even account for new seats required to meet population growth.
The report criticizes the city's current methodology for determining space needs, arguing that it leaves the School Construction Authority perpetually behind the curve on creating new seats. It also notes school advocate claims that the authority is understaffed, preventing it from moving quickly to identify appropriate school sites and shepherd new construction plans through the approval process.
Kallos expressed concern that many of his constituents are forced to send their children to schools outside their districts, either because of absolute limits on seats or limited space in specific programs, such as pre-k or gifted and talented programs.
"Every single child should be guaranteed a seat in their neighborhood and no child should ever be turned away," he said. "I should never have to hear from another parent who is leaving my district or the city because their families doesn't have the resources they need from the government."
Overcrowded schools are often forced to convert spaces like libraries, science labs, or music rooms into general purpose classrooms, depriving students of access to these resources. Some have turned their gyms into multipurpose spaces that also serve as lunchrooms and auditoriums. According to the report, students in overcrowded schools tend to perform worse than their peers at under-enrolled schools. The report also cites data from the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York showing that school overcrowding has a disproportionate impact on immigrant communities.
Kallos told Gothamist that the legislation would provide a better picture of the city's needs, enabling it to more efficiently determine where to create new seats. He also said it could bolster integration efforts by giving a clearer picture of where there is available space in the system and where students who apply to or enroll at specific schools are coming from.
"We should be using this information to make sure we’re planning appropriately and making sure that there is room for integration, so we don't see some of the segregation that we see in my district, where we see schools that are majority white across the street from schools that are majority minority," he said.
Recent attempts to address overcrowding by redrawing school zones have met with at-times vociferous parent opposition in several districts around the city, with wealthier white parents fighting to keep their children in overcrowded predominantly white schools rather than under-enrolled schools that are majority students of color.
A spokesperson for the DOE said the agency is currently reviewing the legislation.