[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on Dec. 9, 2021.]
The New York City Council bill to reduce class sizes in our public schools is designed to protect our children’s health and their academic prospects by ensuring adequate space for every student in every classroom.
It already has 41 sponsors out of 51 members. Council leadership — specifically Speaker Corey Johnson, a co-sponsor of the legislation — needs to support parents and teachers and let the bill come to a vote before the end of the year. This is an issue of health, of instruction and of equity.
According to the state Department of Education, of the 675 school districts in New York, 663 — 98% — have lower class sizes than New York City public schools. Don’t New York City children deserve the same learning environment as students in the rest of the state?
The potential health benefits are clear, and particularly important as the city and our schools are still struggling with the COVID pandemic, including the emergence of the omicron variant. A classroom with fewer students makes social distancing, ventilation and cleaning far easier to manage.
This is one of the reasons that some upstate and suburban districts — where class sizes are much smaller than in New York City — managed to reopen fully before our schools. In addition, of course, every parent recognizes the value of smaller classes where teachers can give each child more attention.
Every teacher knows that smaller classes can make a huge difference, especially for struggling learners. Here’s how the bill would work.
In the amended draft we have discussed with other interested groups and the Council, the legislation would change the health section of the city’s administrative code to mandate minimal square footage of 28 to 35 square feet per student.
The standard varies by room size and grade level, so the average elementary school classroom of 650 square feet could house no more than 20 children, while the number of high school students in a 750-foot classroom would be capped at 26.
These represent reductions of roughly one-quarter to one-third from current overcrowded class levels. In general, smaller classrooms would hold fewer students, while larger rooms could hold more, as long as the student-to-space ratio fell within the legislative limits.
Why do we want to do this now?
Reducing class size is one of those goals that every administration claims to support, but few ever manage to implement, usually citing space and budget constraints.
To deal with the space issue, we looked at the DOE’s most recent space survey, conducted during the COVID pandemic, and employed the same methodology as the city’s Independent Budget Office.
Our analysis shows that roughly 85% of our school buildings could adopt these new occupancy standards immediately by repurposing administrative and other available spaces.
This means the legislation would make it necessary for the system to produce only about 38,000 new seats over the next five years, a number well within the projected 55,000 new seats that are already funded in future city budgets.
In terms of wages, our projections are that about 2,000 new teachers would have to be hired every year for the next five years, at an annual cost of about $200 million.
These would be in addition to the roughly 5,000 new teachers the city routinely hires every year to replace instructors who retire or resign. The total new wage cost — estimated at $1 billion — represents about 1% of the total current city budget.
Meanwhile, new state funds are coming to the city as the results of the state law that resolved the Campaign for Fiscal Equity legal case, as well as more than $7 billion in new federal COVID recovery resources. It would be a terrible waste to have these new resources disappear into the swamp of DOE bureaucratic spending.
These federal funds need to be used to make increased investments in strategies — like reduced class size — that will have long-term benefits for our children and our city.
Even over five years, this initiative is a major undertaking. But it can be done.
Since 2014, the Department of Education has successfully added 90,000 new seats for pre-K and 3K children.
Community Education Councils, along with education groups like Class Size Matters, the local NAACP, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, have endorsed the bill, along with the New York City Central Labor Council, the Building and Construction Trades Council and other labor groups. All our children deserve the time and attention — and the health benefits — that only smaller classes can provide.
We have or can acquire the space we need; the funding, thanks to the state and federal governments, is there.
All we need now is the political will.