Parents and educators are cheering passage of new legislation that would dramatically reduce class sizes at New York City public schools, but city leaders decried the measure as an "unfunded mandate" that could harm other key education programs.

The bills would cap the number of students in school classrooms at 20 to 25, depending on grade level, and the measure enjoyed strong support among lawmakers in Albany, passing the state assembly by a vote of 127 to 12 early Friday morning. But Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks warned that the city will have to make major cuts in other areas to meet the new mandate if Gov. Kathy Hochul signs it into law without adding funding to pay for new teachers and space to accommodate the changes.

In a statement earlier this week, Adams said his administration “strongly supports lower class sizes.” However, he said, if the state does not make additional funds available, the city will have to slash the number of “social workers, art programs, school trips, after-school tutoring, dyslexia screenings, and paraprofessionals” to cover the costs.

City officials said the changes would amount to billions of dollars in additional costs.

“An unfunded mandate like this would potentially do huge damage to our system,” Schools Chancellor David Banks said in a statement Wednesday.

The new rules would cap kindergarten through third grade classes at 20 students, limit fourth through eighth grade classes to 23 students and restrict high school classes to 25 students.

Current rules limit first through sixth grade to 32 students; middle school classes to 30 students for schools that serve a high proportion of low-income families — also known as “Title I” — and 33 students for non-Title I schools. High school classes are currently capped at 34 students.

The requirements would be phased in over five years starting this fall, with priority for schools that serve higher poverty populations.

The bill also allows temporary exemptions for schools that cannot make the reductions based on space, enrollment, teacher shortages or “severe economic distress."

Meanwhile, it provides schools with some flexibility on how they achieve their class size targets, saying schools will have to outline if they plan to construct new classrooms, place additional teachers in a class, or “otherwise reduce the student-teacher ratio” on a temporary basis.

The legislation does not come with additional funding to achieve the new class size targets. In fact, the state will withhold money if the city does not enact the changes.

But state Sen. John Liu, who chairs the New York City education committee, said he expects the city to put a recent overall boost in state funding toward class size reduction.

Last year, lawmakers in Albany voted to increase state aid to schools, finally complying with a court order from 2006 – which cited large class sizes as part of the city’s failure to provide students with a “sound basic education.”

“I think it’s terrific that we finally delivered the long standing promise of smaller class sizes in New York City,” Liu said.

The city has also received an infusion of federal stimulus dollars, which it has yet to spend fully.

United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew pushed back against the mayor’s assertion that the city can’t afford to make the changes. The union argues that as many as 90% of schools have space available to achieve the targets, and the additional state aid and stimulus dollars should be able to cover the costs.

“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,” said United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, referring to Tweed Courthouse, the historic building near City Hall that now houses the city’s Department of Education.

The United Federation of Teachers itself could also benefit from the bill. Shrinking classes will likely require hiring more teachers, which would increase the union’s ranks.

Many teachers say small classes are better for all educators, students and families.

“Just ask any teacher what it’s like to teach on a snowy day when lots of kids stay home,” said Liat Olenick, a teacher in Brooklyn. “It’s a world of difference.”

Olenick recalled one instance when only half of her third graders showed up for class due to a storm. She said students were more focused, their behavior was better, and in her view they learned more while having more fun.

If we really want to make up for any sort of learning loss and retain burnt out teachers, this is the best way to do it.
Brooklyn teacher Liat Olenick

“There is no better way to invest in student mental health, instruction and teacher retention than by reducing class size,” she said. “If we really want to make up for any sort of learning loss and retain burnt out teachers, this is the best way to do it.”

Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, said the bill is also “a huge victory” for parents.

“For too long, city students have struggled in classes that are 15% to 30% larger than those in the rest of the state,” she said. “While all students benefit from smaller classes, the research shows that those who benefit the most are children of color, who make up the majority of students in the NYC public schools.”

“I’ve been hoping for this change,” said Beth Mirarchi, a parent of a kindergartener in Brooklyn. “I think it would make a big difference for students who are struggling, and all students would benefit from more individualized attention.”

Enrollment across the city’s school system has declined during the pandemic, and average class sizes are down this year. But some classes and schools remain overcrowded.

Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said he’s worried about the logistics and costs of the legislation, especially at the city’s largest and most crowded schools.

“It’s a laudable goal,” he said. “Smaller class size is certainly better for everyone. Kids are able to learn better, teachers are able to manage better. But it takes a heck of a lot of space. And it’s a tremendous number of teachers needed, which creates a big expense.”

He worries that administrators will be left struggling to implement the mandate without sufficient resources or support, then blamed if they can’t make it work.

Similar efforts have fizzled as officials worried about costs. Last winter, there was a bill in the New York City Council to require more square-footage per student as a way to reduce class sizes and increase safety during the pandemic. But the city’s Independent Budget Office said as many as half of the city’s public schools would not be able to meet the mandate. The budget office has not yet run the numbers on how much the new legislation from the state will cost.

Lauren Calvin, a parent of elementary school students in Queens, said it comes down to the mayor’s priorities. As part of his budget, Adams has proposed cutting funds from schools that saw their enrollments shrink. But Calvin said the mayor should invest more in education, not less.

“The budget is not finalized and the budget is a moral document,” she said. “Parents unilaterally want to see this happen.”