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New law will lower city class sizes

UFT, parents and advocates win a decades-long battle
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Teachers protesting class sizes
Jonathan Fickies

Educators and parents voiced their support for smaller class sizes during a UFT press conference on reduced class size near City Hall on Dec. 9, 2021.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Sept. 8 signed into law landmark legislation that will lower class sizes in New York City by a third over the next six years, closing a decades-long gap in class sizes between the city and the rest of the state.

"Parents and educators alike have been advocating for smaller classes for decades, and the passage of this legislation represents a groundbreaking change for our school system," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in an email announcing the news to members.

Currently, 98% of the state's school districts have lower class sizes than New York City, according to the state Education Department.

Lawmakers in the state Senate and the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed the bill in June. Educators, parents and school communities strongly supported the legislation, but Mayor Eric Adams and Chancellor David C. Banks expressed concerns about the funding and implementation.

The governor spent the summer making sure all of its provisions could be successfully implemented and she revealed in late August that she was in talks with Adams about it. After she signed the bill, the mayor and the schools chancellor said they were now on board.

Mulgrew credited UFT members, parents and advocates for "raising their voices and articulating the importance of smaller class size for our students."

The legislation, which was spearheaded by state Senator John Liu, the chair of the Senate Committee on New York City Education, will lower class sizes for all grades. The governor and state lawmakers agreed that this initiative requires significant strategic planning so the agreement to sign the bill directs that the current school year be a planning year. The changes will go into effect beginning in September 2023, with 20% of classes citywide in compliance with the new limits each year of the five-year phase-in period. By September 2028, all classes in all schools will comply with the law. Schools with higher poverty rates will have priority during the phase-in process.

The legislation comes at a time when the city has more state and federal education aid than ever before, and students' needs following the COVID-19 pandemic have never been greater.

The law requires that maximum class sizes be reduced from 25 to 20 for kindergarten; 32 to 20 for grades 1-3; 33 to 23 for grades 4-8; and 34 to 25 for high school. The maximum size for high school physical education courses and performing groups will be 40. Individual schools can exceed the caps for elective and specialty classes if the school receives a waiver or if UFT members approve it in an SBO vote. Placement of a second teacher in a classroom is permitted only as a temporary measure.

During the current planning year, the city and the Department of Education, in collaboration with the UFT and the principals' union, will develop and sign off on a class-size reduction plan. The plan will detail how schools will achieve the targets and will include a waiver process for schools that claim it would be a hardship due to space, over-enrollment, license shortage areas or other issues. The city must have a plan to overcome hurdles for schools with exemptions.

Where a popular school or program is over-subscribed now, the law requires the city to come up with a plan to increase the number of seats to meet both the demand and the new class-size limits. "This bill was never about reducing the number of children enrolled in popular programs and schools. It's about the creation of more seats wherever they are needed," Mulgrew wrote in an email to parents. "In no way will it lock children out of popular schools."

Jason Klein, a physics teacher at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said the legislation is an investment in students that "provides a long-lasting solution" to the problem of overcrowding in city public schools.

"It feels great. It's very, very satisfying," he said of the bill becoming law. "The governor did the right thing here."

Klein, a teacher for 22 years, said he has routinely had classes with more than 30 students. With so many students, he said, the teacher has more limited time to monitor students and see how they're doing, especially those who might be struggling.

"When class sizes are smaller, students and teachers get to know each other better, and they can forge relationships," he said. "I think students will be motivated to work harder if they feel like they've made a connection with their teacher, and that leads to better outcomes."

Related Topics: Class Size, Teaching Issues