Some parents, teachers and education advocates are accusing New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson of stonewalling a bill to limit public school class sizes, a bill he actually co-sponsored.
“It’s tremendously disappointing,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of the group Class Size Matters. “This was the absolutely necessary time to pass this.”
The legislation would shrink public school classes over three years, starting next fall, by mandating more square footage per student.
The city’s teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, has been advocating vigorously for the bill. “We’re going to continue on this with parents until we get it,” said union president Michael Mulgrew. Many schools held rallies this week calling on the council to move forward with the new requirements.
Of the council’s 49 legislators, 41 have now signed on, making it likely that if it were brought to a vote, it would pass. But the legislative session ends this month; if Johnson does not bring the bill to a vote, it will have to be re-introduced next year and the council will have to hold hearings again after new lawmakers take office.
Asked why the speaker has not brought the legislation up for a vote, a spokesperson for Johnson said, "This bill is still going through the legislative process."
Decades of data back up the educational benefits of smaller classes for students, particularly around improving academic outcomes and shrinking achievement gaps. But proponents argue reducing class size has become even more crucial during the pandemic when students need to maintain social distance to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s a public health issue,” Mark Treyger, chair of the council’s education committee, said upon introducing the bill in July.
According to the teachers union, the latest version of the new law could bring average classrooms down to 14-21 students for 3k, pre-k and kindergarten classes; 15-23 students for elementary and middle school classes; and 17-26 for high school students—depending on the size of the room. Currently, kindergarten classes are capped at 25 students, first-through-sixth-grade classes at 32 students, and high school classes at 34 students.
However, at a City Council hearing in October, leaders of the city’s Department of Education said the legislation is impractical. “The proposed legislation would create a seat deficit at every grade level,” said Chief Academic Officer Linda Chen.
At the urging of city council, the education department did launch a pilot program this year to hire more teachers to shrink classes at 72 schools.
According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, under the bill originally proposed, nearly half the city’s 1,600 schools would not be able to comply with the class size legislation. Schools would also have to hire additional teachers to accommodate smaller classes.
Haimson said it’s a question of priorities, not feasibility: when de Blasio rolled out pre-k, he lobbied for the funding and found the space to make it happen, and the city is now flush with new state funds and federal stimulus dollars. “The things the DOE calls impractical are the things they don’t have the political will to do,” she said.
She said it’s an issue whose moment has come. But she worries that time to act—at least during the current legislative session—is running out.