Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Class Size Limited By Law?

Concerns over the number of students per class took on a new magnitude and urgency last month – 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 started 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 Department 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 students 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 year, the list includes 497 city schools--and students at 374 of them are now eligible for transfers.

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. This fact contributed 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."

Class-size-reduction advocates believe that large classes are the New York City schools' most serious problem. They point to studies that show that smaller classes 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 rates.

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 smaller classes 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 creation of 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 City 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 education; 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, some believe 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 initiative. Although last month the city clerk bumped the class-size referendum from the ballot on the grounds that only one charter proposal is permitted per election, and the mayor's charter question on nonpartisan elections had priority under local election law, New Yorkers for Smaller Classes filed suit and prevailed. On October 2, State Supreme Court Justice Louise Gurner Gans put the issue back on the ballot. City officials say they will appeal her decision. In the meantime, though, New Yorkers for Smaller 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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