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Testimony regarding overcrowding in NYC public schools and Res. No. 563


The United Federation of Teachers would like to thank the Committee on Education and Chairman Dromm for holding this hearing. We appreciate the opportunity to share our views on strategies we believe will make a significant impact on improving outcomes for our children, beginning with the reduction of class sizes for early learners.

A child’s ability to learn is compromised when classrooms and schools are overcrowded, and so we join with parents and education advocates in appreciation of the Council’s strong leadership on this issue.

Everyone understands the value of individualized attention in the classroom. Unfortunately, thousands of our students are still jammed into oversized classes and thousands more are attending classes in so-called ‘temporary’ trailers that are, in reality, decades old. What’s more, the Mayor’s Management Report released in September 2014 indicated that one-third of New York City’s elementary schools in the 2013–14 school year packed in more students than they were built for while simultaneously class sizes in the early elementary grades crept up for the sixth straight year.

Class sizes in New York City have continued to increase across all grades year after year. Across the board, New York City’s class sizes are considered the highest in the region and are limited only by the collectively bargained safeguards in the UFT contract. This past October, there were more than 3,500 classes in excess of contractual limits, and although that was several hundred fewer than at the same time last year, the classes were dispersed over more schools than in the past.

In order to lower class size system-wide, we need the space. Yet we believe the unmet need for seats is far greater than the number being funded. The city is slated to build 32,000 new seats under the new capital plan, but as detailed in a recent Independent Budget Office report, only 62 percent of those seats will be completed within the five-year span of the plan. What’s more, some estimates put the actual need for seats at between 45,000 and 70,000, meaning that we are not keeping pace with the demand. The city needs a comprehensive strategy to reverse this trend.

What class size is the right size?

In case there is any doubt, let us state unequivocally that the size of a class really does matter in the life of a student. It’s a matter of common sense. Teachers will tell you that they can provide more individualized and differentiated instruction when their class sizes are reduced, even by just three to five students.

Critically, research shows that not only does classroom instruction in smaller numbers improve outcomes, but also the earlier children are able to be in smaller classes, the greater the impact on their reading achievement. Of particular note are the widely cited research trials from Tennessee’s Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio Project. According to its findings, class sizes of 17 or less significantly raise achievement for early learners, especially for minority students, with measurable gains documented through Grade 9. For children who spend their K–3 years in classes this small, there is, on average, an extra 7.1 months of learning, or almost a full year.

Moreover, the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, found after reviewing 19 studies that met its standards for rigor that “most of the research shows that when class-size reduction programs are well-designed and implemented in the primary grades (K–3), student achievement rises as class size drops.”

The UFT has determined, based on prevailing research on public schools as well as private day and boarding schools, that the early grades should be limited to 15 students per class. Reducing current class sizes to this level in elementary schools across the city would be a significant undertaking, both with respect to creating the infrastructure as well as recruiting certified educators.

We are optimistic. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K initiative, which involved creating the programs and enrolling more than 50,000 4 year-olds this past fall, shows what can be accomplished if the political will is there.

Cut class size by closing tax loopholes

We were encouraged to hear that the Department of Education is opening nine new schools in September, as part of its ongoing effort to provide relief from overcrowding. But the system needs a greater investment that we believe should come from the state. Gleaned from cash settlements with banks and financial institutions, New York State has an unanticipated $5 billion surplus. One-time payments are generally best suited for one-time expenses — like school construction.

On a larger scale, reducing class size will take the will and commitment of both the city and state governments, as well as additional revenue. The UFT is aggressively pursuing every possible avenue to fund the renovation of current space and the addition of new buildings, both of which are needed to make classes smaller. We seek the City Council’s support for creative approaches to generating revenues for critically needed class-size reduction.

This past December, the UFT unveiled the union’s proposal to lower class size by ending tax breaks for absentee owners of luxury coops and condominiums. The benefit that these non-New York City residents receive from an outdated tax incentive program is a loophole that nets them low property valuations. According to our analysis, the city could generate approximately $900 million a year in incremental income from the roughly 90,000 absentee-owner units currently receiving the 421a tax benefit. We posit that this revenue would cover the costs of reducing class sizes to 15 students per class in kindergarten through Grade 3.

Not only is this a fair approach, but it also achieves our goal without adding a new tax. Residents who occupy their units would not be subject to the change in tax status that closing this loophole would achieve.

It is only fair that New Yorkers who actually reside in city dwellings should be the ones to enjoy the benefit of the tax break. Out-of-town owners should not be eligible for below-market valuation. We invite you to review our entire policy memo, which we have enclosed as an addendum to this submission, and we welcome your support on this proposal.


Support for Resolution No. 563

The UFT supports Resolution 563, which opposes raising the current cap on new charter school authorizations in New York City and across the state. As Resolution 563 articulates, the cap has been raised twice in the past eight years and the rent provisions specific to New York City that require the city to pay the rent for charter schools for which there is no available space within the city’s already overcrowded school buildings would become even costlier if more charter schools sought the benefit. This financial impact is even more burdensome when you consider the fact that New York City schools have already been underfunded by more than $2.5 billion in school aid.

What’s more, the UFT opposes rewarding charter operators and management companies that have consistently refused to educate their fair share of high-needs students. No change in the charter cap should be considered until charters comply with the 2010 state law that requires them to enroll proportionate numbers of students with disabilities, English language learners and other special-needs students. Charter schools are also suspending students at up to 10 times the rate of district schools, another troubling fact that must be addressed.

Closing thoughts

We urge the City Council to find ways to reduce class sizes for New York City schoolchildren before another school year begins. We also ask for the Council’s support in pushing for additional state school aid that would make class-size reduction more achievable.

It’s been more than 20 years since a coalition of concerned parents and community members filed the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s school funding system, and seven years since the state enacted legislation in response to the settlement of that lawsuit that committed it to increase school aid to ensure fairer funding for poorer districts and reduce class size. In this timeframe, two generations of children have matriculated through New York City schools at a marked disadvantage to their suburban and wealthier district peers.

Our students have endured the market-based approaches to education of the prior city administration where there were preordained winners and losers. We are now facing a governor who is using his power over the state budget process to hold school aid hostage. The time is now to turn the tide and give these children the best chance for a fairly funded quality education in classes small enough for them to obtain the maximum benefit.

Instead of investing in what has proven to help student achievement — like small class sizes — the governor offers up a plate of failed ideas. Instead of providing fair funding for all school districts, he allows the gap between the richest and poorest school districts to grow. Instead of investing in small class sizes, Gov. Cuomo offers up a political choice: increased school funding only if lawmakers agree to his failed policies.

Related Topics: Class Size, Overcrowding