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Class Sizes Set to Shrink in New York City Schools, but at What Cost?

New York City Mayor Eric Adams won a partial victory in the State Legislature this week, when lawmakers extended mayoral control over city schools for another two years, half of what the mayor had sought.

But for city officials, the end of the legislative session also brought a major setback: a requirement to reduce class sizes — supported by many parents and teachers but opposed by the city — that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

In addition to mayoral control, New York State lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday that would require the city to reduce the number of students in each classroom across the nation’s largest public school system.

The bill reignited a half-century-old debate that has pitted teachers and parents who believe smaller class sizes are better for children against city officials, who point to evidence suggesting there are better and more cost-effective ways to improve education.

The class size bill, proposed by Senator John Liu on Tuesday, who was also the author of the mayoral control bill, would require kindergarten through third grade classes to be no larger than 20 students; fourth through eighth grade classes to be no larger than 23 students; and high school classes to be no larger than 25 students.

“There’s no excuse for the City of New York to continue to have class sizes that are substantially larger than the rest of the state,” Senator Liu said.

Classes in New York City are currently capped at 25 students for kindergarten classes, 32 students for other elementary school classes, between 30 and 33 for middle school classes, and 34 students for high school classes. The average class size was around 24 students during the 2021-2022 school year.

Senator Liu said in a statement that “students and teachers will finally realize the fruits” of a previous court decision, which found “reducing class sizes is fundamental to a sound, basic education.”

But it is unclear how class size reduction might affect student outcomes in New York City schools, said Douglas Ready, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

An analysis of multiple studies found that the academic benefits of small classes are mixed. Generally, any academic gains for students are linked to relatively tiny classes, much smaller than what is required in the bill.

Mr. Ready said the best evidence supporting smaller class sizes comes from studies in Tennessee and Wisconsin, where the classrooms studied had between 13 and 17 students.

“We’re talking nowhere close to that in New York,” Mr. Ready said, adding that the benefits of class size reduction depend in part on how large the original class sizes are.

The benefits are also sometimes outweighed by the fact that schools may hire lower quality teachers to meet class size reduction goals, according to a 2017 study.

“There is no reason to believe that the program itself will have the pedagogical effect that people want,” said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog. “And it might have unintended negative consequences because money has to be shifted from other programs.”

David C. Banks, the New York City schools chancellor, said in a statement that the bill’s “multibillion dollar unfunded mandate” would force school leaders to shift resources away from programs such as dyslexia screenings, school nurses and summer programming.

“Make no mistake, it will lead to large cuts in these critical programs,” Mr. Banks said in the statement. “This should not be a choice that school leaders have to make.”

Mr. Banks asked state lawmakers to increase funds for city schools if they were committed to smaller class sizes.

School leaders estimate that the cost for the caps on kindergarten through fifth grade class sizes would be at least $500 million a year. The total could come to $1 billion a year across all grades, education department officials said. The estimates include the cost of hiring teachers and opening additional classes within schools.

Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement that the proposed legislation was “not the best we can do for New York City students,” arguing that “unless there is guaranteed funding attached to those mandates we will see cuts elsewhere in the system that would harm our most vulnerable students in our highest need communities.”

Teachers and unions have long fought for smaller class sizes, and the bill was a victory for the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teacher’s union. Michael Mulgrew, the union’s president, called the bill a “landmark achievement” in a statement.

Mr. Mulgrew noted that the city could use state and federal pandemic aid to fund class size reductions, which would be “phased in to avoid short-term budget shocks.”

The federal pandemic aid will run out, but union officials suggested it could be used to begin hiring teachers to reduce class sizes. State funding for city schools, which officials had promised to increase, could maintain the program, they suggested.

“For the school system to threaten to cut back on safety and social and health programs — despite these new funds — shows how little Tweed cares about the calls from thousands of parents that their children deserve smaller classes,” Mr. Mulgrew said in the statement, referring to the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education.

Education officials said it would be irresponsible to use federal funding for class size reduction, because that funding is time-bound and the reductions aren’t. They added that current state funding was already planned for other programs.

Mr. Rein said that relying on the federal funding would only lead to a “future fiscal crisis.”

“I don’t dispute their estimates of cost impact,” said Senator Liu. “The problem with their argument is that we are already providing the additional money,” he added, referring to the $1.6 billion per year in additional aid the system is receiving through April 2024.

He said that the ramp-up period ends April 2024, but New York City schools will receive that funding in perpetuity, as long as state lawmakers continue to allocate it in the budget.

The bill requires that the reductions be achieved over the next five years and that the Department of Education make progress in 20 percent of the school system’s classrooms each year. And it encourages school officials to prioritize schools that enroll large numbers of low-income students.

A number of kindergarten through eighth grade classes already have an average of 20 to 25 students, in part because the city’s public school enrollment has declined during the coronavirus pandemic.

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