Mayor Eric Adams will continue to retain control of New York City schools under a deal struck by state lawmakers Monday. But the first-term mayor will have to be back in Albany sooner than he had hoped to get his authority over schools renewed, and will now also be tasked with shrinking class sizes over the rest of his time in office.
State lawmakers reached a deal to grant Adams a two-year extension of mayoral control of city schools, half of the four years the mayor and Gov. Kathy Hochul had proposed to fellow Democrats who control the Legislature. The deal includes several changes to the city panel that votes on education policy.
Tied to the measure is another major move to cap the size of classes in city schools between 20 to 25 students, depending on the grade, over the next five years. A boon for the teachers union, the cap will likely be a costly endeavor for the city’s education department.
The Adams administration said it was reviewing the proposals, which are expected to go before the Legislature for a vote later this week and then to Hochul.
While the mayor and governor had pitched a four-year extension of school control, Democrats in the State Senate were reluctant to give Adams such a long stretch since his administration did not provide lawmakers a plan or pitch proposals for what they wanted to accomplish with mayoral control, according to a source briefed on the internal discussions.
Instead, most lawmakers discussed granting Adams just one or two years of mayoral control of city schools, with “very few” even backing the idea of granting him three years, the source said.
“I think this is a win for the Adams administration: They retain control, which is what the mayor asked for, and it’s a win for parents and the public,” said Sen. John Liu, a Queens Democrat who chairs the Senate’s New York City education committee.
A one-year extension felt too “destabilizing,” Liu said, because lawmakers would have to reconsider the matter less than a year from now. Two years would allow legislators to take a closer look at New York City’s school governance structure, he said.
“There’s a great deal of interest in seeing whether mayoral control has better served the schools as opposed to elected school boards,” Liu said.
But the extension to mayoral control also ties in some checks on Adams administration.
In an effort to boost parent voice, lawmakers also agreed to expand and make several changes to the Panel for Education Policy, or PEP, a currently 15-member, mostly appointed board that votes on major policy proposals and is subject to strong influence from City Hall. In perhaps the most significant change, the mayor and the five borough presidents will no longer be allowed to remove members if they don’t vote a certain way.
For the class size proposal, a potentially substantial price tag is already causing some chafing at City Hall, according to people briefed on the administration’s thinking.
While estimates on how much it would cost the city to limit the number of students in a class are still being calculated, a stricter class size cap that failed to gain traction late last year in the City Council pegged the cost at nearly $1 billion a year over 30 years.
Liu pointed to funding already provided by the state under Foundation Aid, a formula that sends more money to high-needs schools. That formula resulted from a lawsuit known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, and just last year, state lawmakers agreed to fully fund it by 2023.
“The [Campaign for Fiscal Equity] funding was about providing a sound basic education, to which small class sizes is a key element,” Liu said.
“While we believe all parties are operating in good faith, we also believe the legislation as currently written is not the best we can do for New York City students, and we look forward to addressing these concerns in the coming days,” Mayor Adams told THE CITY and Chalkbeat.
Keeping class sizes small
In the striking move, state legislators are set to pass separate legislation that would require the city to cap class sizes at 20 students for kindergarten through third grade, 23 students for fourth through eighth grades, and 25 students for high school. The city must create a plan with educator unions by this September, and must phase in smaller class sizes each year up to 2027.
Reducing class sizes is seen as popular among educators and families, and research has found that the endeavor can lead to better academic performance. But a study in New York City found that gains were tied to smaller classrooms that had experienced teachers, while classes with inexperienced educators saw no change.
Advocates praised the bill, which will likely result in the hiring of more teachers and could add to the union’s membership at a time of shrinking enrollment. In a statement, Mulgrew called the bill “a landmark achievement for this city’s children.”
“If the bill passes and it really happens, it will be transformative for New York City kids and their opportunity to learn,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, who has been pushing the city for years to reduce class sizes.
The teachers union contract allows for classes to be as high as 34 students by high school. But this school year, class sizes averaged just under 25 students, as enrollment dropped and funding increased. While billions in federal COVID relief will dry up by 2024, the increase to Foundation Aid, which represents roughly 30% of New York City’s education budget, will be permanent.
The bill allows for some exemptions to meeting the class size requirements, such as availability of space, shortages in a teaching license area, and “severe economic distress.”
“While my administration strongly supports lower class sizes, unless there is guaranteed funding attached to those mandates we will see cuts elsewhere in the system that would harm our most vulnerable students in our highest need communities — including the loss of counselor positions, social workers, art programs, school trips, after-school tutoring, dyslexia screenings, and paraprofessionals,” noted Adams.
“There must also be a mechanism for altering or delaying the plan to reduce class sizes if the mandate is shown to severely adversely impact racial equity and the city’s fiscal health,” he added.
The city must submit annual reports on their progress to New York’s state education commissioner. If the commissioner decides the city has failed to make enough progress, the city must submit a corrective action plan on how it will meet class size targets. The city has been under corrective plans for years for failing to meet requirements when educating students with disabilities and those learning English as a new language.
City Hall’s push-and-pull with Albany
Since assuming the office in January, Adams has had a tepid relationship with Albany lawmakers despite once having been one himself, serving in the state Senate. Democrats have griped about Adams’ scarce visits, his penchant for criticizing Albany over criminal justice reforms, and his team’s inexperience in cultivating goodwill and relationships.
Adams rescheduled a planned rally earlier this month to drum up support for what he called “mayoral accountability” after a flight cancellation following a campaign-funded trip to Los Angeles. He finally held the rally in support of his education agenda — from the steps of City Hall before heading to Albany to meet with lawmakers two weeks ago.
But the mayor’s trip to meet with state legislators as the end of the legislative session loomed was complicated by President Joe Biden’s visit to Buffalo in the wake of a racist shooting at a grocery store that left 10 Black people dead and prompted Hochul and the legislative leaders to head to western New York to appear alongside the president while Adams was in Albany.
The push-and-pull between City Hall and Albany isn’t anything new.
Republicans, who once controlled the state Senate, accused then-Mayor Bill de Blasio of not lobbying hard enough in 2015 for a long-term extension of mayoral control. De Blasio even faced resistance among fellow Democrats in 2019 for not meeting with lawmakers and making his case for control of city schools.
Overhauling a mayoral rubber stamp
On top of a two-year extension of mayoral control, the mayor and borough presidents will no longer be allowed to remove members of the PEP for voting against their wishes — representing a significant change to the mayor’s powers.
The PEP will now have eight more members, and each panelist will for the first time hold a one-year term, which can be renewed.
Previously, appointers could remove PEP members for any reason with 10 days’ notice — one of the biggest criticisms of mayoral control. Opponents of mayoral control often point to the “Monday Night Massacre,” when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Staten Island borough president at the time removed panel members for opposing a plan on how to promote third graders. While former Mayor Bill de Blasio said he never removed anyone from the PEP, one of his appointees resigned after being the sole mayoral appointee to vote against controversial school closures.
Curbing the power to remove panel members “injects more integrity into the PEP process,” Liu said. The change could mean that more controversial City Hall proposals will fail to pass in the future. That could include proposals over school closures, which often spur emotional and strong pushback from affected communities, and is something the Adams administration may need to grapple with as enrollment declines. (Adams said in April that he was not considering school closures and was instead hoping to entice families to come back.)
Starting Aug. 15, the mayor will have 13 appointees of the 23 PEP members, which is four more than he currently chooses. The mayor has so far struggled to appoint all of his choices on time, resulting in the failure of some of his early proposals.
Four of the mayor’s appointees must be parents of a child attending New York City public schools, up from two currently. Those parent appointees must include at least one with a child with disabilities, one with a child in a bilingual or English as a second language program, and one with a child enrolled in District 75, which serves students with the most significant disabilities.
The five borough presidents would each still appoint one member. The presidents of the city’s 32 Community Education Councils, which represent each local school district and have the power to shape school zone boundaries, will elect five members, up from one member. Each of their choices must represent a different borough.
The deal also makes the city comptroller a nonvoting member of the panel, similar to the schools chancellor, who speaks and presents proposals but cannot make decisions about them.
A panel with more appointees elected by CECs could join forces with borough president appointees and even the comptroller’s office to mount opposition to City Hall, and could apply enough pressure to make the administration back down from unpopular proposals, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who has studied mayoral control.
“They couldn’t win in a straight majority vote if the mayor’s appointees held firm, but I think there’s substantially more prospect here for challenges that would be serious enough that the mayor might have to reconsider, if it seemed like folks were mobilizing on the other side of issue,” Henig said.
In a statement, Comptroller Brad Lander said he “would be honored” to join the PEP as a nonvoting member and that it’s important for the board to make “informed funding and policy decisions.” A spokesperson for his office said they did not lobby for the change, and Liu’s office did not respond to a question about why this change was included in the bill.
In a statement, Michael Mulgrew, president of the city teachers union, praised the deal for increasing parental involvement and ensuring “more independence” for PEP members.
In a separate statement, Mark Cannizzaro, president of the principals union, praised the fixed terms for PEP members as allowing those panelists to “vote their conscience,” but was also worried that the larger size of the panel could “potentially become unwieldy.”
Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josefa Velasquez is a senior reporter for THE CITY. Contact Josefa at email@example.com.