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New York City Council punts on bill to reduce class sizes after school officials said the proposal was unworkable

A man in a suit clasps his hands together in front of a lectern with microphones. To the right, is another man in a suit.

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew (left) with council member Mark Treyger this summer to unveil legislation that would limit class sizes. The legislation was not brought up for a vote this year.

Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

A bill that would have imposed stricter limits on class sizes in New York City schools will not be brought up for a vote this year, despite months of pressure from the teachers union and other advocacy groups.

The legislation, which was introduced over the summer, would have limited many classes to 14-21 students (depending on the size of the classroom) by increasing the amount of space required per student to 35 square feet up from 20 square feet for most students.

That would have represented a substantial reduction in class sizes, as the current teachers union contract allows classes of up to 34 students by the time students reach high school. For weeks, the city’s teachers union held rallies, circulated petitions, and wrote op-eds to drum up support for the bill. Forty-one city council members ultimately co-sponsored the legislation — a veto-proof majority. 

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, one of the bill’s sponsors, did not respond to a request for comment about why the legislation would not be brought for a vote at the council’s Wednesday meeting, the final opportunity this calendar year before a majority of the council is replaced in January.

City council does not typically have the authority to dictate education department policy, and class size caps are negotiated as part of the teachers union contract, but the bill attempted to circumvent that by altering square footage requirements in the city’s administrative code. The bill’s advocates argued that it was partly a response to the coronavirus pandemic given the benefits of social distancing, though the legislation would not have been fully phased in until 2024.

Many teachers have called for smaller classes, and parents consistently rate the issue as a priority on school surveys. A number of studies have found that smaller class sizes lead to better academic outcomes, measured by test scores, graduation rates, and college enrollment. Still, there are tradeoffs: Reducing class sizes can require hiring more inexperienced teachers which can dampen the academic benefits, according to a study focused on New York City.

The class size proposal met resistance from the city’s education department, which argued that the bill would have required the city to create roughly 200,000 new school seats. A separate analysis conducted by the Independent Budget Office found that half of the city’s schools would not have the space to provide 35 square feet of space per student, potentially affecting more than 100,000 students. 

Adding roughly 100,000 classroom seats would have come at a steep cost: roughly $993 million a year over 30 years, said Sarita Subramanian, assistant director of education policy for the IBO, though half of the tab would be covered by the state. That figure does not include the cost of hiring additional teachers to staff smaller classrooms. (The city education department’s budget this year is $38 billion.)

Even without the legislation, class sizes fell roughly 5% systemwide this school year to an average of 24.7, city data show, amid increased school funding and declining enrollment

More recently, Johnson, the council speaker, said revisions were in the works to make the bill more feasible. The teachers union claimed the changes would reduce the square footage requirements and extend the timeline for implementing it — meaning that 84% of schools would be in compliance and reducing the number of seats the city would need to create. But those changes were never made to the original legislation.

In an interview earlier this month, Michael Mulgrew, the teachers union president, said the union would continue to push on the issue even if the bill was not brought for a vote.

“This is what the parents know that their children need now more than ever,” Mulgrew said. “We’re not going to stop.”

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