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NYC Department of Education Fails to Plan for Mandatory Class Size Reduction
By Leonie Haimson - repost from Gotham Gazette
This op-ed first appeared and was published in the Gotham Gazette. Posted with permission from its author and permission granted under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Class size has been an enduring concern of parents and teachers alike and a deep flaw of New York City schools for nearly a century. As far back as 1930, during the administration of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the New York Times concluded that excessive class sizes were the “chief problem” of the public schools:
“There is hardly any disagreement that smaller classes are desirable and that individualized instruction is better than mass teaching, but the task of substantially reducing the average size of class [is] the most drastic and serious confronting the board [of education] and the city.”
Some progress has been made over the last century, but not enough. In 2003, in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, New York’s highest court concluded that excessive class sizes had deprived New York City students of their right under the state constitution to a sound basic education. And though both Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio pledged to reduce class size during their campaigns, neither one fulfilled that promise, and as of this fall, more than 230,000 students were still crammed into classes of 30 or more.
As written during the 2021 mayoral campaign by Gothamist’s Elizabeth Kim, “For some New York City education policy experts, the mission of reducing class sizes can be likened to a holy grail.“
But in June 2022, the State Legislature finally had enough. Especially as the long-delayed funding from the CFE lawsuit was due to be finally awarded to city schools — $1.3 billion phased in over three years — Senators John Liu, the chair of his chamber’s New York City education committee, and Robert Jackson, the original plaintiff in the CFE lawsuit, spearheaded the passage of a new law that required what city officials had long failed to accomplish: to lower class sizes.
The bill, signed into law by Governor Hochul in September, requires that all class sizes in public schools be gradually capped over the next five years to no more than 20 students per class in grades K-3, 23 students per class in grades 4-8, and 25 students per class in high school, with an additional 20% of classes meeting those limits every year.
Because of overall enrollment declines, there is little doubt that the New York City Department of Education will meet the first year benchmark of 20% at or below these levels. This past fall, 38% of classes citywide were at or below the mandated caps, compared to 42% last year. Class sizes increased at most schools this year because of budget cuts to schools, causing the loss of teachers and important programs. In fact, New York City public schools have lost 4,000 K-12 teachers over the last five years.
It is far less likely that the Department of Education (DOE) will meet the 40% mandate in 2025 if current trends continue, and nearly impossible that these caps will be met in years three to five without significant changes to school funding, enrollment policies, and the capital plan for school construction — none of which the DOE intends to do. In fact, DOE policies are moving in the wrong direction.
But here are some of the important steps that DOE has failed to take:
None of the additional $500 million in CFE funding (called Contract for Excellence funding in the law) will be targeted specifically towards hiring additional teachers to lower class sizes. According to a City Council analysis, another 817 full-time teaching positions are due to be lost if the mayor’s proposed budget is adopted, although the DOE is projecting a minimal enrollment decline of less than 1% and an actual increase in high school enrollment next year.
Even though the DOE has assured the public that initial school budgets for the upcoming 2023-2024 school year will remain the same as initial budgets for this year, big cuts in funding that can be used to keep teachers on staff are being replaced with increased funding for specified purposes, such as professional development. Moreover, less funding is likely to come over the course of the year in contrast to past years. In fact, the initial budgets schools are receiving for next year are about $800 million less than they were as of March of this year. As a result, we have already heard of schools that will be forced to excess teachers -- again.
Despite the fact that more than 300,000 students were crammed into overcrowded schools this year, the School Construction Authority is instead proposing to cut the number of new seats by 38%, compared to the plan adopted in June 2021. In fact, in over 800 pages of the proposed capital plan introduced in February, the new class size law is never mentioned once, while only 46,000 new seats are funded.
Yet expanding the capital plan cannot be put off -- especially when it takes at least five years to site and build a new school. Instead of actually building the necessary additional school space, the Schools Chancellor is threatening to add more trailers at the last moment, which no one wants.
The need for new space would be significantly diminished if the DOE had a plan to cap enrollment at overcrowded schools. This change in admissions policies would more equitably distribute students across schools. In many instances, severely overutilized schools are near extremely underutilized schools, as can be seen on our interactive school overcrowding map. Yet DOE officials have repeatedly refused to even consider doing so.
Instead of taking any positive steps to ensure compliance with the new law, the DOE draft “plan” repeatedly refers to the existence of a working group that the Chancellor appointed to help advise him on these measures. Yet the members of this working group, of which I am one, were not appointed until late April, and the group’s recommendations are not due until late October, too late to make the changes in the capital plan that are needed now.
All the actual proposals described in the draft class size “plan” are only vaguely expressed without any apparent substance behind them. Though the DOE claims they will “Ensure that schools with classrooms that currently meet the class size mandate have appropriate funding to continue to maintain these class sizes in SY23-24,” they do not explain how this will be accomplished; nor with what funding. There is nothing mentioned in the school allocation memos recently posted that even mention this goal.
The DOE adds that in the future, “efforts to achieve compliance…could include…considering creative interventions to support schools in meeting mandates, working in partnership with school communities.” Again, this contingent language does not describe what these “creative interventions” might be. In no respect does this flimsy rhetoric indicate any sort of real plan.
Instead, the DOE should commit to targeting funds for school staffing, so that the teaching force increases or at the very least is maintained at current levels. The DOE and School Construction Authority should also expand the number of new seats in the capital plan to ensure sufficient space to meet the smaller class size caps in years three through five.
Finally, the DOE should project what percentage of classes will achieve the mandated caps next fall and in the following years, outlining in which specific schools class sizes will be lowered, using which strategies and policies.
Otherwise, one must assume that DOE officials are merely biding their time, hoping no one notices, until it is too late to comply.
The City Council has an important role to play in this. The Council should refuse to approve the DOE budget, which threatens to cut school budgets once again, unless it receives promises that total school-level funding over the course of the year will remain the same as this year. And the Council should demand that the capital plan be expanded and accelerated, or else it risks being nearly as complicit as the mayor in failing to take the necessary steps to create the space needed to lower class sizes to the levels required by the law — so desperately needed by New York City students.
Leonie Haimson is the Executive Director of Class Size Matters. On Twitter @leoniehaimson
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