NYC school building Credit: Karen Juanita Carrillo photo

After months of hesitation, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has signed legislation that will lower class sizes in every grade in New York City over the next six years. Teachers’ unions and their supporters are heralding her action, but opposition to the bill remains strong.

Once the bill was signed, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew and Nicholas Cruz, UFT’s director of community and parent outreach, sent out an email praising the new law. “The city has more state and federal education aid than ever before,” the email reads, “and coming out of this pandemic, our students’ needs have never been greater. Thanks to this legislation, the class size gap between New York City public schools and schools in the rest of the state will finally close. The impact on our school system will be tremendous.

“We want to be clear: This bill was never about reducing the number of children enrolled in popular programs and schools. On the contrary, the law will require the city to create more seats wherever they are needed so students receive the individualized attention they deserve. In no way will it lock children out of popular schools.”

But opponents claim school funding issues are precisely what will determine how this new law is received. They have long charged that lowering class sizes won’t be easy: it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for the construction of more building facilities for more classes and will necessitate the hiring of more teaching professionals (at a time when fewer people are choosing to enter the profession and the number of current teachers retiring remains high).

In a report from 2011, the Brookings Institution agreed that lowering class sizes is expensive for any education board. But it noted that “researchers have found positive effects of early and very large class-size reductions on academic achievement in school and college attendance, with the economic benefits of the program outweighing the costs.” 

Peter Greene, a retired English teacher, wrote in his blog “Curmudgucation” about studies that show that smaller class sizes mean more attention to the individual needs of students—and allow teachers the opportunity to spend more productive one-on-one time with young learners. Those who are against smaller class sizes, Greene says, don’t really have a valid argument: “Ask parents. Would you rather have your child in a class of fifteen or thirty-five? Then find me even a dozen parents who pick the larger class. Heck, even people in the ‘Gosh, there’s no hard evidence that smaller is better’ crowd admit that they still prefer smaller for their own children. Meanwhile, every teacher will tell the same story that I will tell you about my years in the classroom—with fewer students, I could give each student more personal attention. Not only that, but as an English teacher, fewer students meant that I could do more writing assignments as well as provide richer feedback because I was only grading 150 essays over the weekend instead of 300.”

State lawmakers had overwhelmingly approved the class size reduction bill in June and teachers’ organizations clamored all summer for Hochul to make a decision on it. When she finally signed the bill into law on Thursday, Sept. 8, it was presented with one minor change: the phasing in of class size requirements will take place by September 2028, instead of by 2027 as initially proposed. So each year, from 2023 through 2028, New York City will have to reduce class sizes in at least 20% of its schools. 

One public school parent has been vocal in opposing the reduction of class sizes. Yiatin Chu, who serves as president of Asian Wave Alliance and is a co-founder of PLACE NYC, had created a petition urging Hochul not to sign the new law just days prior to it being passed. “Mandating class size caps will force the DOE to cut seats in programs that NYC families want: popular neighborhood schools, gifted and talented (G&T) programs, AP courses, Specialized High Schools (SHSAT) and other in-demand middle and high schools,” Chu’s petition states.

“Higher class sizes are often in schools with space constraints. Putting classroom caps will force students onto waitlists, into trailers or rezoned away from neighborhood schools and bused to under-enrolled schools with capacity. We must build more schools in these areas before we impose class caps.”

But State Sen. John Liu who sponsored the bill—and chairs the Senate Committee on NYC Education—said, “New York City school kids have been denied a sound basic education for too long. This legislation forces the Department of Education to at long last develop a 5-year plan to bring class sizes down to levels originally established by the DOE itself instead of merely paying lip service to the problem. Moreover, the City is receiving $1.6 billion more state funding annually toward this purpose, and must stop with nonsensical rhetoric claiming ‘unfunded mandate’ and just get stuff done! Thanks to Governor Hochul, NYC school kids will now get what they are entitled to.”

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