Concerns over the number of students per class took on a new magnitude and urgency
last month â€“ and will come even more to the fore next month, when the
issue of class size will be on the November ballot.
When the new school year
in September, parents, teachers, and advocates who thought that the public
schools were already about to burst found classrooms
more overcrowded than ever.
Many elementary school teachers, who last year
struggled to meet the needs of 28 or 29 students, are now responsible for 33
or 34. And dozens of overcrowded
middle and high schools also find themselves with five or more extra students
per classroom. The United Federation of Teachers, the teachers
union, claims to have counted over 10,000 classes that violate the union contract's
class-size limits, which range from 25 in kindergarten to 34 in high school.
The union has filed a formal grievance against Chancellor Klein and the
of Education for these contract violations.
Reasons for the extreme overcrowding
this year include growing enrollments and the effects of the federal No Child
Left Behind legislation, which allows
from schools that score poorly on state tests and are labeled "in need
of improvement" to seek transfers to better schools throughout the city.
Last year, 331 of the city's approximately 1200 schools were so labeled; this
the list includes 497 city schools--and students at 374 of them are now eligible
New York City classes have long been by far the largest in the
state, with class sizes averaging 20 to 35 percent over other school districts.
to the recent New York Court of Appeals ruling in CFE
v. the State of New York (In PDF format) that the students of New York
City were being denied their constitutional right to a sound basic education.
In that decision, Chief Judge Judith Kaye acknowledged that "New York
City schools have excessive class sizes, and that class size affects learning."
advocates believe that large classes are the New York City schools' most
serious problem. They point to studies that show that smaller
lead to more individualized attention and improved student achievement, especially
for poor and minority students. They contend that smaller classes also foster
greater parent involvement, fewer disciplinary problems, and lower drop-out
Soon New Yorkers will get a chance to vote on one potential solution
to the city's class-size problem: amending the New York City charter to make
mandatory by law.
In August, a group called New Yorkers for Smaller Classes, which
includes the teachers union and a number of parent and advocacy organizations,
submitted a petition calling for a referendum on class size to be placed
on the ballot in November. The referendum would ask voters to approve the
a city charter revision commission to study the class-size issue and to
decide whether a proposition to limit class size should go before New York
voters in the 2004 election.
While few deny the disadvantages of large
classes, not everyone supports this type of solution to the problem. Critics
of the idea argue that reasonable
class size is just one of a number of ingredients necessary for a quality
they worry that legislating small classes does not ensure and may even
jeopardize having enough qualified teachers, adequate school buildings,
and the full
range of programs that students also need to succeed.
Opponents of the
class-size ballot initiative point to Florida's controversial class-size
amendment, which was approved by voters last fall. The amendment
requires school districts to begin reducing class sizes this year.
By 2010, classes can
be no larger than 18 in grades pre-K through 3, 22 in grades 4 through
8, and 25 in high school. In a year with limited state funds, however,
that teachers' raises, school construction, as well as school programs
in art and music have been jeopardized by the class-size mandate. A
movement is now
underway to scale back the law, though there is doubt whether the still-popular
law is vulnerable to repeal.
New Yorkers, however, will vote in November
on whether to start the city on the path toward its own class-size ballot
clerk bumped the class-size referendum from the ballot on the grounds
that only one charter proposal is permitted per election, and the
on nonpartisan elections had priority under local election law, New
Yorkers for Smaller Classes filed suit and prevailed. On October
2, State Supreme
Louise Gurner Gans put the issue back on the ballot. City officials
say they will appeal her decision. In the meantime, though, New Yorkers
Classes is now preparing for an all-out campaign to win the vote.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and director of policy development at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition advocating for a sound basic education for students in New York City. The views expressed are her own.
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