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Why New York City needs smaller class-size caps


[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on June 13, 2022.]

New York, responding to the demands of tens of thousands of public school parents, is on the cusp of taking a historic step forward in lowering city class sizes, finally fulfilling a promise the state made more than 15 years ago. Gov. Hochul simply has to sign a just-passed bill into law.

We cannot allow Mayor Adams and Chancellor David Banks — with smoke-and-mirrors budget projections and threats to cut other important services — to derail this vital initiative.

How large is the problem? According to the most recent state figures, 663 of New York’s 675 public school districts have lower class sizes than New York City.

The UFT contract currently caps class sizes in New York City at up to 25 in the lower grades and 34 in high school academic subjects. In many instances, the union has had to resort to contract arbitration to enforce these limits, though the recent aftereffects of COVID have kept many current classes within the contract limits. Actual class sizes in 2021-22 averaged 21.6 students for elementary schools; 24.9 for middle schools; and 25.1 for high schools.

The new legislation would — with the force of law — reduce city class size caps from 25 to 20 in the lower grades and from 34 to 25 for academic high school classes, levels much closer to statewide averages.

Oversized classes have been a long-term issue in New York City. After decades of litigation, in 2007 the state passed the Contract for Excellence, designed to ensure fairer funding for the state’s neediest schools. Lower class sizes were a key part of that strategy, because it works.

Academic research, including studies of programs in Tennessee and Wisconsin, have demonstrated the positive results of well-planned and well-implemented class size programs. The studies confirm what parents (and New York’s priciest private schools) already know — having fewer kids per teacher gives instructors more time to devote to each student, a benefit for every child but particularly for struggling learners.

Contrary to some claims, we have both the money and space to do this.

Using the Department of Education’s most recent space survey, the UFT found that nearly 90% of the system’s current buildings could adopt the new class size guidelines by using administrative and similar spaces for instruction.

Indeed, estimates for additional classrooms necessary for the program over the next five years fall well below the number the system has already planned for new construction over those years, though some locations may have to be changed.

The city’s financial objections — they claim it’ll cost $500 million per year just to lower elementary class sizes — are vastly overstated.

Because the program would be phased in, approximately 2,000 new teachers would have to be hired in each year for five years. The roughly $200 million annual cost would add up to $1 billion after five years. This is the equivalent of about 1% of the city’s current $100 billion annual budget.

Meanwhile, the state has boosted the city’s school funding by $1.3 billion and — according to both Comptroller Brad Lander and the city’s Independent Budget Office — at least $4.6 billion of federal COVID relief funds are still unspent. This means that New York City has plenty of room in its more than $30 billion annual education budget to bring city class sizes down without reducing spending in other areas.

The program has built-in flexibility. It would give the city’s neediest schools the highest priority for class size reduction and provides temporary exemptions for certain overcrowded buildings.

In no case would popular, special or over-enrolled schools or programs be able to push out or turn away students based on the new space calculations, though such schools will be required to make plans to expand their capacity over time.

In addition, the legislation mandates that the caps be in place for every class — to avoid the DOE claiming compliance on the basis of school or district class size averages.

One common objection to class size limits is that poorly designed or implemented programs, particularly those that throw inexperienced teachers at the problem, often show little benefit. This is disingenuous. The city school system has made little or no effort over the years to stem the annual loss of 5,000 veteran teachers. If the influx of 5,000 new teachers into classrooms every year hasn’t been an issue worth addressing, why does the possibility of 2,000 more awaken so much concern?

In fact, the possibility that their classes could be dramatically reduced could help retain hundreds, perhaps even thousands of the veteran instructors the New York City system loses every year to retirement, other school systems (with lower class sizes) and other careers.

Smaller classes are a longtime goal of the city’s public-school parents, a reform that the Legislature has passed overwhelmingly. Make them the law.