New York City public schools are often as crushed as the subway during rush hour, with literally thousands of students forced to learn in overstuffed classrooms—sitting side by side, elbows knocking into each other, or sometimes leaning against the wall or resting on a radiator. Even in the age of Covid-19, hallways are so jam-packed it can be hard for students to get to their next class.
QIt wasn’t supposed to be this way—and, if the city’s mayor and the City Council speaker would pass a crucial piece of legislation limiting class sizes in New York’s public schools, it wouldn’t have to continue. But as the end of the council’s term ticks closer, the two are standing in the way of a popular bill, adding a new and frustrating chapter to a drama that’s been playing out for decades.
New York City parents and educators have been calling for smaller class sizes since at least the 1960s. In 2003, the state’s highest court agreed with them. It concluded that class sizes were too large to provide students with their right, guaranteed by the state Constitution, to a sound basic education. It found that the plaintiffs, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, “presented measurable proof” that New York City schools have “excessive class sizes, and that class size affects learning.” It concluded:“The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.”
To remedy this and other inequities, the court ordered that the state provide more funding to high-needs districts, and in 2007, the state passed a law requiring New York City to use these funds to lower class size. But then the Great Recession hit, and the full state funding never materialized. Class sizes actually increased.
Today, classes in the city’s public schools are larger than they were in 2003—especially in the early grades. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, more than 330,000 students—roughly a third of the school population—were crammed into classes of 30 or more. On average, classes in the city’s public schools are 15 percent to 30 percent larger than they are in the rest of the state. While both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, the city’s most recent mayors, promised to address this critical inequity during their campaigns, both failed to follow through once elected.
Now, the pandemic has brought the perennial problem of class size into sharper focus, as the need for social distancing has made smaller classes more critical than ever. At the same time, Covid-19 has helped bring unprecedented resources that could be used to address the issue: Over the next three years, the city is due to receive an additional $8 billion in federal and state funds for our schools.
The federal funds are meant to help the city improve both the health and safety of the classroom environment—goals that smaller classes could help achieve. The state funds—which amount to $1.3 billion in additional annual aid, due to be phased in over three years—represent the long-overdue fulfillment of the mandate of the CFE case.
Together, these funds represent a remarkable opportunity, one the City Council recognized when it proposed that a substantial portion of them be allocated toward reducing class size. But the mayor balked. So the council’s education chair, Mark Treyger, introduced Int. 2374 in July, a bill that would effectively phase in smaller classes over three years. It would do this by increasing the per student square footage required in classrooms, ranging from about 18 to 26, depending on the grade level and room size.
The legislation currently has 41 cosponsors out of 50 members—a supermajority that could overturn the mayor’s likely veto. Yet the vote on this bill has been delayed by Speaker Corey Johnson, despite the fact that there are fewer than two weeks before the council adjourns for the year and a new one takes over in January.
Why is the issue of class size so important? Abundant research shows that smaller classes improve student outcomes in nearly every way that can be measured. Kids in smaller classes not only get better test scores and grades, but they also have fewer disciplinary problems, are more likely to graduate from high school in four years, and to attend college and receive a STEM degree. And those who reap the greatest benefits from smaller classes are those who need the help the most: children from low-income families, students of color, those with special needs, and English language learners. In other words, the kids who collectively make up the majority of students in New York City public schools. That is why class size reduction is one of only a handful of reforms proven to narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps between racial and economic groups.
Many teachers reported that last year, even in the midst of the pandemic, they were able to reach the students who attended school in-person to an unprecedented degree. The reason? Small classes that only became possible because 60 percent of students stayed home to engage in remote learning. At an online forum held by the United Federation of Teachers a few weeks ago, Brittany Bugge, a Brooklyn elementary teacher, explained that having a small class for the first time allowed “every student a chance to shine.”
In contrast, high school teacher Emily James spoke about how in past years, when she had as many as 35 students per class and a teaching load of 150 or more, she “felt like a pizza pie that was being sliced into all these different pieces…. The more kids that you have, the smaller those slices are that each of those students is receiving.”
Students agree that in large classes they feel cheated of what they need to excel. As Tiffany Torres, a former high school student, pointed out last year, “When there are over 30 students in a room with a single teacher, all struggling yet unable to receive the attention they need, we begin to understand how black and Latinx students are consistently left behind.”
Indeed, when surveyed, New York City teachers agree that class size reduction would be the best way to improve our schools. It would also provide a necessary morale boost to teachers still struggling to recover from the disruptions and trauma of the pandemic—and, in the long run, would likely lower their attrition rates as well. As Treyger, a former teacher, said of the high school where he formerly taught: “Teachers were burned out; I was one of them. My colleagues who left the profession never gave up on the children, they refused to participate in a system that shortchanged them.”
Yet time is running out. If the City Council doesn’t vote on the bill by December 16, it will have to be reintroduced and reconsidered by a largely new council under a different speaker. Johnson, who is term-limited, originally ran for that office promising to be responsive to the priorities of his fellow council members and signed onto this bill himself when it was first introduced nearly six months ago.
After weeks of silence, Johnson now says that he is concerned that there might not be enough money in the current capital plan to pay for the space necessary to lower class size; this ignores the fact that the plan is amended each year, with the amounts allocated toward building new schools voted on annually by the council. And while there is no doubt that lowering class sizes will require real investment, both in terms of additional space and staffing, many economists estimate that the financial benefits of class size reduction are considerable, ultimately outweighing the costs thanks to higher graduation rates, fewer special education referrals, lower crime rates, and even savings in health costs.
Whether Corey Johnson is bowing to the wishes of the current administration—which has called the measure overly expensive and “disruptive”—in delaying this vote or to those of the next mayor, Eric Adams, who has not publicly expressed any view on the subject, is unclear. Last week, Johnson was named as one of the leaders of the Adams transition team.
Educational historian and advocate Diane Ravitch has said, “If you are serious about helping children, reduce class size. If you are serious about helping teachers to be more effective, reduce class size.” After the introduction of Int. 2374, she urged the council to approve it, as instituting smaller classes would be “the most powerful reform you can enact.”
If Johnson allows this bill to pass, it would lead to a sea change in our schools—and serve as a proud capstone to his years in office. It is past time that students in one of the richest cities in the richest nation in the world were provided with equitable class sizes, long promised but never delivered.