Gotham Gazette

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With the Stroke of a Pen, Governor Hochul Can Bring Smaller Classes to New York City Schools

Gov. Hochul's signature (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

The families in my district need – and deserve – smaller classes for their children. The Legislature has overwhelmingly approved a measure that will set new class size limits in New York City public schools. It is now up to Governor Hochul to ensure that the city brings these benefits to our kids.

For years New York City’s children have had to deal with class sizes among the largest in the state, and my district in Queens is no exception.

Pre-covid, average class size in the more than 30 schools in my district was significantly over the new proposed limits -- 20 for most elementary classes, going up to 25 for later grades and high school academic subjects. 

Despite enrollment losses since the pandemic – losses that lower class sizes could help address -- most of my district’s schools are still above the new limits the Legislature has proposed.

Lower class sizes have been a long-term goal of the state, part of our efforts to finally bring the city into compliance with the goals of the Contract for Excellence, enacted by the Legislature 15 years ago to help make sure that the state fairly funded our neediest schools. Instituting these changes on the city level is about equity -- it’s about bringing the standards that so many of the rest of our state’s children already benefit from to children living in the five boroughs.

Parents know that smaller classes can make a huge difference in their children’s lives. National studies of well-run programs in places like Wisconsin and Tennessee have shown the potential for children’s academic growth when teachers have more time to devote to each student.

The narrative that we have to choose between programs like music and small class sizes is a false choice rooted in a dishonest austerity mindset, especially given the windfall of unspent federal covid funds. It is unfortunate that the city government has been so quick to say that we cannot give the best to our children. 

First of all, the city and the Department of Education – with more than $1 billion in additional state funding and more than $4.5 billion in unspent federal covid funds -- can afford to lower class sizes.

The program will be phased in over five years, so the cost of an additional 2,000 new teachers each of those years is not a budget-breaker. Even when fully implemented, the estimated $1 billion in new salary costs amount to less than one percent of the overall city budget.

Space for smaller classes will undoubtedly be an issue, but one that can be solved. 

The teachers union, working with the system’s annual space survey of school principals, has found that nine out of ten school buildings could meet these new class size guidelines by better using their current space, including by using rooms now devoted to administration and other purposes.

Eventually, new construction will be necessary, but the number of new classes needed is well below the new rooms the system has already planned to build over the next five years.

New York’s history is full of things that ‘couldn’t be done’ – for logistical, financial, or administrative reasons – until we decided that they could.

Take universal pre-K and 3K, for instance. For years officials complained that these programs were too expensive, there wasn’t enough space or demand, there weren’t enough teachers -- the objections went on and on.

But eventually, the political will was found. Last year, more than 90,000 children – including more than 500 in my district alone – took part in 3K and pre-K programs, a huge benefit, particularly for working families. In the same spirit, this year’s enacted state budget allocated a total of $7 billion over four years to expand these efforts statewide.

The fight for fair funding for New York City students has been going on for decades. The promise of lower class sizes was made in 2007. Now, in the form of Senate bill S9460, my colleagues in the Senate and the Assembly have, with a nearly-unanimous vote, made good on that pledge.

That bill is ready and waiting for Governor Hochul. Her signature can make the promise of smaller classes a reality.

State Senator Jessica Ramos represents the 13th district in Queens. On Twitter @JessicaRamos.

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