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UFT Testimony

Testimony on implementing the state class size law in New York City

UFT Testimony

Testimony of Michael Sill, Assistant Secretary of the United Federation of Teachers, submitted before the New York City Council Education Committee.

My name is Michael Sill, and I’m the assistant secretary of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of the union’s more than 190,000 members, I want to thank the New York City Council’s Education Committee, especially Education Chair Rita Joseph, for holding today’s public hearing on implementing the state class size law in New York City. 

Lowering class sizes in New York City is not an experiment, a wish list, an “unfunded mandate” or even another expenditure competing for Department of Education (DOE) funding. 

It is the law. 

In 2022, Albany passed a law to reduce class sizes in all New York City classrooms by September of 2028, and the state is providing New York City with $1.6 billion in new, recurring funding to help make it happen. 

Once the additional funding was in place, the New York Legislature, in June 2022, overwhelmingly amended New York State’s Contract for Excellence law by a vote of 59–4 in the State Senate and 147–2 in the Assembly to require that New York City implement a five-year class size reduction plan. On Sept. 8, 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the bill into law, with compliance requirements beginning in September 2023. 

The law calls for class size caps to be achieved in 20% increments over five years starting with the 2023–24 school year, with caps of no more than 20 students per class in grades K–3, no more than 23 students per class in grades 4–8, and no more than 25 students per class in high school, with physical education and performing arts classes capped at 40 students per class. 

Unfortunately, the DOE and City Hall are doing all they can to sabotage these changes and to avoid implementing this needed reform. 

Our city’s young people deserve better. They deserve the same class sizes that students across New York State already have. They deserve to be seen and to enjoy the academic, social and emotional benefits small classes have proven to provide. 

One of the most powerful things you can say to a young person is simply, “I see you … I see you for who you are, on your journey of self-discovery and self-realization. I see you and am willing and able to help you on that journey.” 

Every teacher in New York City wants to say that to their students. The class size law makes that connection possible. It is what the class size law is about. If those of us who have power to make the law a reality — to say to our young people, “I see you” — if we are not doing everything we can to make that a reality — then shame on us. If anyone is making excuses for why this is not possible here, in the greatest city on Earth, when it is possible in upstate New York and Long Island, then shame on them. 

The UFT has worked tirelessly to secure billions of dollars of new funding for public education through Foundation Aid to support these legally required class size limits, and Albany has done its part by, at long last, fulfilling the promise to fully fund Foundation Aid. 

New York City now has additional funds to help provide smaller class sizes for optimal learning. That money came from the relentless advocacy of UFT members and is dedicated to our kids. Over and over again, we have heard from parents across the city that reducing class sizes is their highest priority and that they seek schools for their children with classes small enough that every child is seen and taught as an individual. 

As the city seeks to rebuild its enrollment after the declines of recent years, keeping parents like these in the system by ensuring that our city’s schools have the small class sizes they’re looking for is essential. Yet over the last two years, the administration has plundered over $1 billion in Foundation Aid, and it is undermining the education of the more than 300,000 students in Title I schools who are crammed into oversized classes. 

Since coming into office, Mayor Adams has repeatedly cut school budgets despite more than $1.6 billion in additional annual state aid provided to New York City schools as a result of the settlement of the CFE decision. Even worse, all of this was done in secret — with no discussion among the Panel for Educational Policy members. In public, the DOE has been using an alleged lack of funding as a reason for insisting that implementing the class size law will require unacceptable “tradeoffs” in our schools — telling school leaders, state officials and concerned parents that programs will be cut and enrollments slashed if they are required to comply. But after reviewing the city’s $8 billion-plus in reserves, the higher-than-expected city revenues, the increase in state investment specifically for the equity of small classes and the more than $1 billion in state funds earmarked for city asylum seekers that we are told is yet untapped — our position is that these claims of “fiscal austerity” are political rhetoric and not a fiscal reality. 

What is worse, the DOE has made policy and spending decisions that are taking us in the wrong direction for compliance with these lower class sizes. 

A recent UFT survey, which found that more than 322,000 students in Title I schools across every borough are in oversized classes, rebuts critics who claim the law will not help the city’s neediest students. The survey showed that 50% or more classes are larger than the law allows in nearly 700 Title I schools; overall, 97% of New York City's 1,267 Title I schools have at least one oversized classroom. 

But as a result of the district’s failure to take meaningful action toward implementing the law, average class sizes increased this year at all grade levels and for the second year in a row for elementary and middle schools. Given these current trends, it is increasingly possible that the DOE will not meet the mandate in the class size law next year that 40% of classes comply with the new caps and even less likely that they will achieve the mandates in years three to five. 

The law also makes the New York City Department of Education responsible for building more classroom seats in congested neighborhoods, so no child is pushed out of their chosen school. But the mayor has proposed more than $2 billion be cut from the new proposed five-year capital plan for school construction, which would likely make it more difficult for schools in the most overcrowded communities to lower class sizes. 

The DOE is also using scare tactics around the cost of building these urgently required schools by releasing inflated estimated construction costs, which were based on the assumption that if a school had one student over capacity relative to the new class sizes, then an entire new school would need to be built at $80 million per building. Let me say that again — you have a school that has a capacity for, say, 400 students. Back in 2021, there were 401 students enrolled in that school. The School Construction Authority (SCA) said that another school needs to be built. But it gets worse. 

During one joint DOE-UFT-CSA meeting, SCA representatives said this methodology applied if two schools were over capacity in the same school building — in such a case, two new schools would have to be built. These inflated numbers are still being cited by opponents of the class size law’s implementation, and the latest draft of the capital plan removed the required information about where new schools would be built, further worrying local parents seeking solutions for their students’ overcrowded schools. 

The capital plan should return to specifying where new schools are needed to create the space to lower class size and should fully fund all those schools. And one thing is for sure: With space at a premium, the city must stop co-locating charter schools in public school buildings. 

The Class Size Working Group of educators, parents, education advocates and others, which Chancellor David C. Banks convened in March, submitted a report on Dec. 11 that offered more than 50 practical and actionable recommendations that would enable the DOE to lower class sizes to the mandated levels starting next year and beyond. 

One is to support schools that have already met the class-size benchmarks (partially or fully) with the necessary resources, including financial, to maintain them so “that there is not a revolving door of schools in compliance.” Another is that the DOE and the SCA should recognize the need for more school space, develop a plan to repurpose and maximize existing space and implement better strategies to identify sites for new schools. 

The Working Group also developed strong recommendations around the process of building a pipeline of qualified and diverse educators to ensure that we have the teachers our city needs to staff these smaller classes. 

We share the Working Group’s emphasis on the need to begin this process immediately, collaborating with CUNY, SUNY, and other universities to recruit and train a cohort of future educators ready to effectively support students from Day 1. 

We urge the DOE to follow up on the opportunities the Working Group cited to tap into increased federal funding for teacher apprenticeship and residency programs and to strengthen and fund pathways into teaching for the paraprofessionals and substitute teachers who are already serving in our city’s classrooms. Professional learning and mentorship for these new teachers will be essential if we are also going to improve the rates of teacher retention in the city and avoid a revolving door of new hires. Great educators are developed, not born, and the district must ensure that we do not lose both promising new recruits and experienced educators just at the moment we need them the most to ensure that the benefits of small class sizes are realized. 

The mayor and the DOE must stop treating the law as if it were optional. Given the intransigence of the administration, the State Education Department has already been compelled to briefly withhold state funds and direct the city to conduct a more comprehensive analysis to determine which physical space and budgetary needs to prioritize. This mirrors our reaction that the city’s initial class size plan was missing a strategy for implementation and a targeted proposal for where and when new seats should be built. 

Starting now, the DOE must redouble its efforts to implement the law for the benefit of the city’s children, educators and communities. The United Federation of Teachers asks the City Council to join us in calling on the mayor and the chancellor to refrain from cutting school budgets or the capital plan and instead to increase their funding. We urge them to adopt the Class Size Working Group’s proposals as soon as possible, which will ensure that schools are able to lower class sizes to the levels required by the law. 

We are asking the City Council to join us in ensuring that New York City follows the law, so our city’s students receive the smaller class sizes and quality education they are entitled to under our state’s Constitution. 

In particular, we urge the City Council to join us in calling for the DOE and Mayor Adams to immediately take the following steps toward implementation of the class size law: 

  • Provide additional funding from the city’s surplus revenue and reserves to ensure that schools do not experience program cuts as a result of the implementation of the new class size law, including by ensuring that schools that are currently in compliance with the new class size limits are given the funding needed to stay in compliance. 
  • Act on the recommendations of the Class Size Working Group, especially around capital planning for new schools. This must include restoring and increasing the funding for new seats in the current capital plan and in the release of information regarding where new seats will be located. 
  • Dedicate additional funding to recruiting and retaining a pipeline of new teachers for city schools, including collaboration with CUNY and SUNY, with a particular focus on ensuring that our current paraprofessionals and substitute teachers who want to become full-time classroom teachers are given the support they need to do so. 
  • Identify high-need schools that currently have the space to offer students small classes and, as the law requires, prioritize these schools for implementation. 

To be sure, giving New York City children smaller class sizes — which their peers across the state already enjoy — is not an inexpensive or easy undertaking. It requires additional teachers, classroom space (including new construction), and intensive planning and monitoring. 

We do not dispute there are other needs in city schools as well. But smaller class sizes have been a top priority for New York City parents and educators for decades. The new universal standard for class size in all New York City public schools, enshrined in the law, will yield dividends for our city’s children for generations to come.

Related Topics: Class Size