Exclusive: New York City schools to create working group on phasing in smaller class sizes

Parents, school leaders and advocates are being asked about their interest in joining the effort in a new survey released today.

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks has repeatedly emphasized the value of parental engagement throughout the little over a year that he’s headed the nation’s largest school district.

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks has repeatedly emphasized the value of parental engagement throughout the little over a year that he’s headed the nation’s largest school district. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Starting today, parents, school leaders and others can fill out a survey to express their interest in joining a working group where they’d have a front row seat to weigh in on a new state law that will gradually phase in stricter limits on New York City class sizes beginning next school year. 

Ensuring that a diverse range of perspectives are represented in the group will factor heavily into the selection process, according to the city’s education department. Geographic representation, whether an applicant is a former or current guardian of a New York City public school student, organizational affiliation, and school level and size among other things will be taken into account.   

Applicants have until March 14 to express their interest through the survey. The working group’s first meeting is tentatively scheduled for March 20. 

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks has repeatedly emphasized the value of parental engagement throughout the little over a year that he’s headed the nation’s largest school district. Given the breadth of impassioned perspectives on the new class size law, there will likely be a surge of interest for the available seats.

“Our public schools only work if parents have a seat at the table, and the class size working group is a prime example of harnessing parent power to create long-lasting change in our schools,” Banks said in an emailed statement to City & State. “The legislation passed last year will require difficult decisions and trade-offs in the years ahead, as well as require more funding and other resources. As a school system, we will only be successful if parents, educators, and advocates are brought into the planning process and are vocal partners in ensuring our public schools have what they need to successfully meet the mandates under this law.”

New York City’s new class size restrictions have been the focal point of a fierce debate even after state lawmakers approved the measure in June. For several months, the bill languished on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk, pitting supporters like the city’s teachers union against New York City leaders who argued that meeting its requirements would cost too much – particularly in the later years. But as children across the city greeted classmates and met their instructors on the first day of a new school year last September, Hochul ended the standstill with a stroke of her pen, delivering a long awaited back to school gift to educators.

Now, several months later, the United Federation of Teachers and other supporters worry that city officials are dragging their feet on the planning process that they say is key to being able to lower class sizes. City officials are supposed to work with the principal and teachers unions to develop a plan by September, but progress has been slow, according to Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. 

“At the moment the DOE seems to be dragging its feet to start planning for the small class size law,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “The only speed they have shown, with regards to building use, is trying to squeeze charter schools into existing vibrant public schools.”

During a New York City Council oversight hearing on Jan. 25, First Deputy schools Chancellor Dan Weisberg said that city planning groups are meeting regularly to make sure the city has a good path to complying with the law. 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Banks meanwhile attest that the measure will cost the city hundreds of millions of additional dollars to hire more teachers and add more classrooms to meet requirements. Testifying during a state budget hearing on Feb. 8, Banks said that while the administration supports the sentiment of lower class sizes, some schools may have to make difficult budgetary decisions in the latter part of the law’s five-year timeline as more classes need to meet the requirements. While lawmakers didn’t specifically tie any additional funding to the bill, state lawmakers and other supporters have adamantly pushed back on claims that the mandate is unfunded. They have pointed to huge increases in state education aid that they say can and should pay for reducing class sizes. 

“Albany increased state education aid to New York City specifically to fund small class sizes, something children in the rest of the state already enjoy. It is not, as City Hall claims, an unfunded mandate,” Mulgrew said. “It is a funded mandate, and so the DOE better start planning to make the law a reality.”

The legislation 

The argument of shrinking class sizes isn’t unique to New York City. It’s a national debate. Many parents and teachers have long argued that smaller class sizes improve academic performance and bolster classroom engagement. The general consensus among researchers is that smaller class sizes are indeed more effective, but individual study findings are somewhat mixed. Opponents argue that there are more cost-effective ways to improve educational outcomes. There’s also some New York City parents who oppose lowering class sizes given how doing so would reduce the number of seats at some of the city’s most popular schools.

Hochul agreed to sign New York City’s class size legislation into law this fall after state lawmakers agreed to delay its implementation by a year. Starting in September 2023, the city will need to begin capping kindergarten through third grade classes at 20 students, fourth through eighth grade classes at no more than 23 students, and high school classes at 25. An additional 20% of classes will need to be in compliance every year until 2028 when the requirements are fully phased in.

That shouldn’t be hard to do for the first two years – Banks and Adams have said as much. While New York City classes are currently capped at 25 students for kindergartners, 32 for other elementary grades, 30 to 33 students in middle schools and 34 for high schoolers, the average class size hovered around 24 students during the 2022-2023 school year, according to preliminary data from the Department of Education.

But the distribution of students isn’t even. Due to low enrollment, some public schools won’t have any issues meeting the requirements. Other buildings are already overcrowded with students, meaning they’d need to either reduce their numbers or add more seats. 

The latter, according to Banks, will likely be forced to make difficult decisions down the line, such as having to cut an art teacher or other programming because funding will need to be allocated toward creating a new class even if its only one or two students over the limit. During the February budget hearing, he said the education department believes the city will need to hire 7,000 new teachers to follow the law. 

State Sen. John Liu, who sponsored the bill and heads the Senate’s New York City education committee, pushed back on Banks’ remarks. He said the city is responsible for coming up with the plan to help schools meet class size requirements and that the state’s increased investment in Foundation Aid – which is now fully funded for the first time – should be enough to cover the costs.

In an interview with City & State, he pointed to a decades-old lawsuit from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in which New York’s highest court ruled in 2007 that large classes were preventing students from receiving a “sound basic education.” The class size requirements included in the new law were set by the city in 2007, but were never enforced because the state didn’t fully fund Foundation Aid, according to Liu. That’s no longer the case.

“We are giving them billions and billions of dollars of additional Foundation Aid so that the city can do what they said they wanted the money for which was to reduce class sizes,” Liu said in an interview with City & State. “That was the integral part of why the city needed more school funding to provide a sound basic education.”

With the Department of Education now looking for parents and school leaders to join the working group to ensure the city takes the best approach, many people are eager to participate, according to former Bayside High School Principal Michael Athy. He said that he along with other current and former principals as well as some “hyper-concerned parents” have already formed their own study group to make recommendations for the quickest and most efficient way to implement the class size requirements.