UFT President Michael Mulgrew on Dec. 9 called for closing tax loopholes that benefit non-resident owners of luxury properties to raise revenue to bring class sizes in kindergarten through Grade 3 down to no more than 15 children.
Such a sharp reduction, he said, would dramatically improve student outcomes and build on the gains from the city’s expansion of universal pre-K.
"I call this common sense for goodness," Mulgrew said. "I would like to take the gains we know we are going to see from pre-K and not only cement those gains but amplify them."
One of the most widely cited research trials in education, Tennessee’s Project STAR, demonstrated that class sizes of 15 or fewer dramatically raise achievement for young children, especially minority students, and the gains last at least through 9th grade. Mulgrew promised a full-court press on the State Legislature to make the reform possible.
The current tax loophole allows absentee owners of luxury coops and condominiums to benefit from an outdated tax incentive program and unconscionably low property valuations. According to a UFT policy memo, a $115 million penthouse at One57 in Midtown Manhattan will have a monthly tax bill of about $1,700, compared with a monthly tax bill of more than $2,000 on a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that sold in 2012 for less than $5.75 million. Some 90,000 condos and co-ops in the city are vacant most of the year as their owners live elsewhere.
Mulgrew stressed that the UFT is not proposing a new tax, simply ending an unnecessary tax break. "If you are not a resident, either pay taxes on the actual market value of your unit or become a New Yorker and be responsible for the income taxes that other New Yorkers pay," he said.
Closing the tax loopholes for wealthy non-residents could ultimately raise about $900 million a year, according to the policy memo. But Mulgrew said the city could start this fall, radically shrinking class sizes in 100 schools in the city’s poorest communities, where coincidentally there is available space now. Eventually all K-3 classes should be limited to 15, he said, with the income from closing the loopholes funding new classrooms and teachers.
Educators know that students who are reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade have a greatly improved chance of graduating from high school. Children in poverty are actually 13 times less likely to drop out of school if they meet reading standards on time, Mulgrew told reporters. When they transition from learning to read to "reading to learn" in 4th grade, students who don’t read fluently fall further and further behind.
"What I didn’t realize when I became a high school English teacher was that I had to become a reading diagnostic teacher because a lot of my children were having difficulties with their literacy at that point," Mulgrew said.
Mulgrew shared research that showed a link between higher reading levels and smaller class sizes.
Karen Sprowal, a parent organizer with the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said that parents are concerned individual attention is impossible for young children in districts when early-grade class sizes are often as large as 32. Many fall behind in reading, she said.
"At every Community Education Council we went to, this is their biggest complaint," Sprowal said, talking after the press conference. "Class sizes are at their largest in 15 years. For Michael Mulgrew and the UFT to come out with this — we are very pleased."