NYC’s Working Group on Class Size Provides Recommendations, With Some Members Disagreeing

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Following months of discussion, internal disagreements, and input from nearly 2,000 individuals, a working group appointed to advise the public schools in New York City on how to comply with a state law that limits class sizes has issued its final recommendations on Monday.

The 55-page report, initially due on October 31, contains over 50 recommendations. Among the significant suggestions are placing a cap on enrollment in overcrowded schools, relocating pre-K programs from district buildings to community organizations, and providing financial incentives to increase teacher hiring.

While the report, similar to the draft version released in September, is not binding, officials from the Education Department will ultimately determine how to meet the new legal requirements, which are expected to be phased in over the next five years. However, the complex process of developing the recommendations demonstrates the challenges associated with meeting the new mandates.

According to the caps introduced by the law, class sizes in grades K-3 should not exceed 20 students, classes in grades 4-8 should be less than 23 students, and high school classes should be capped at 25 students.

Supporters of the law, including parents, advocates, lawmakers, and educators, have cited extensive research on the academic benefits of smaller class sizes. They argue that the new recommendations provide a clear plan for the city to achieve those benefits.

Leonie Haimson, a member of the working group and the executive director of Class Size Matters, stated in an email, “With these actionable proposals, many of which do not require additional costs, the Chancellor has no more excuses for delaying. If the Department of Education truly cares about adhering to the law and aiming to provide all NYC students with a better learning opportunity, the time for action is now.”

However, the law has faced opposition from leaders in the city’s Education Department, who claim they lack the necessary funding to implement it. Parents concerned about potential enrollment restrictions at desirable schools and advocates worried about equity issues have also criticized the law.

A number of studies suggest that the schools with the highest levels of poverty would benefit less from the law because they are already more likely to have classes within the legal limit.

The working group’s deliberations became so contentious that nine out of 46 members declined to endorse the final recommendations. Some of them even authored a dissenting “minority report” arguing that the law itself is deeply flawed.

Dia Bryant, former executive director of Education Trust-New York and one of the dissenters, criticized the law and the working group for dismissing practical concerns and being “very aspirational.”

“Ultimately, I think the implementation under the current conditions… is just bad for kids,” Bryant said.

Responding to the report, schools Chancellor David Banks acknowledged that the city is currently complying with the class size law. He added that “achieving continued compliance will require changes, tradeoffs, and additional resources across NYCPS.”

Currently, more than half of the classes in the city’s 1,600 public schools, which amounts to over 73,000 classes, do not meet the requirements, according to the working group.

Here are some of the most controversial recommendations from the working group.

Enforce enrollment caps at overcrowded NYC schools

One of the most divisive suggestions is to enforce enrollment caps at overcapacity schools and redirect students to nearby schools with available space.

The report points out that there are currently 386 schools in the city with enrollment exceeding their building’s capacity, and in many cases, there are neighboring schools with sufficient space.

However, many of these overcrowded schools are also highly sought-after and popular. As a result, any efforts to cap their enrollment are likely to face strong opposition.

The working group suggests that one way to determine who should have access to limited seats is by prioritizing students who live within a school’s geographic zone. The report states that around 17,000 students attending overcrowded schools are from outside of their designated zone.

The authors caution that decisions regarding enrollment caps should still be made “in line with the principles of fairness and community cohesion.” They note that some out-of-zone students attend specialized programs like dual-language classes.

Meanwhile, the dissenting minority report argues that enrollment caps are not feasible because they would increase travel times for families in overcrowded districts and reduce seats in popular programs.

Instead, the dissenting members of the working group propose involving parents in decisions about exemptions from the law. Stephen Stowe, a member of the working group and co-author of the minority report, who also serves as Community Education Council President in District 20, stated that currently, only the chancellor and union officials have a say in exemptions.

Relocate prekindergarten classrooms from overcrowded schools

As the city aims to fill empty 3-K and pre-K seats due to declining enrollment, the working group’s enrollment committee proposes a potential solution: consider relocating 3-K and pre-K seats from overcrowded schools to nearby under-enrolled pre-K centers.

According to the report, this could help struggling programs, which receive funding based on enrollment, to have more stable budgets. The pre-K sector has long raised concerns about competition from programs in district schools.

With nearly 14,000 vacant 3-K classrooms, all 3-year-olds in school-based programs could be moved to community-based organizations, freeing up approximately 451 classrooms in schools. For pre-K, which serves 4-year-olds, nearly 17,000 empty seats could accommodate the majority of students in school-based programs, potentially opening up 1,000 elementary school classrooms.

The report acknowledges that some working group members raised concerns about the potential inconvenience to parents, especially those with older children in public schools. In response, the group recommends flexible drop-off and pick-up times and longer days for families requiring after-care.

Merge co-located schools and limit new school openings

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the creation of small schools gained momentum, resulting in nearly 470 new schools opening between 2003 and 2010. As a consequence, there has been increased administrative overhead and reduced classroom space, according to the report.

Considering this, the working group suggests merging schools that share buildings, particularly those with similar designs, programs, and student populations.

Additionally, the working group advises the city to reconsider creating new schools, with the exception of schools in District 75 catering to students with significant disabilities.

The report suggests that if there is a perceived need or idea for a valuable new program or service, existing underutilized schools should be provided with the necessary resources and support to offer these programs or services.

Increase teacher pay in schools facing hiring challenges

To meet the class size mandates over the next few years, New York City will need to hire at least 17,000 new teachers, according to the Independent Budget Office. The Education Department estimates the figure to be between 10,000 and 12,000.

Concerns were raised by some working group members that an influx of new teachers could impact the quality of instruction, a concern that researchers have also highlighted. Additionally, they worry that smaller class sizes could be diluted as a result.

To address these concerns, the working group suggests various recommendations, including providing teachers with high-quality, research-based lesson plans to reduce their workload.

The group also proposes examining whether non-teaching staff, such as deans, lunchroom supervisors, or grade advisers, could return to the classroom. This would give more oversight to superintendents of these “compensatory positions.”

Such a change “would represent a significant shift away from greater principal autonomy and entrust more control to a centralized system,” according to the report.

(The report notes that only one member of the working group dissented from this recommendation.)

Furthermore, the working group suggests offering additional pay to educators working in schools that are difficult to staff, such as those in the Bronx, Far Rockaway, and Central Brooklyn. Additional pay differentials could also be provided for teachers in hard-to-fill subjects such as special education and bilingual education.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at .

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