Leonie Haimson: To Reduce Inequality in Our Education System, Reduce Class Sizes
Leonie Haimson is the executive director of Class Size Matters. In The Nation, she speaks out in favor of a proposal that could reduce class sizes and improve schools in New York.
New York City parents and educators have been calling for smaller class sizes since at least the 1960s. In 2003, the state’s highest court agreed with them. It concluded that class sizes were too large to provide students with their right, guaranteed by the state Constitution, to a sound basic education. It found that the plaintiffs, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, “presented measurable proof” that New York City schools have “excessive class sizes, and that class size affects learning.” It concluded:“The number of children in these straits is large enough to represent a systemic failure.”
To remedy this and other inequities, the court ordered that the state provide more funding to high-needs districts, and in 2007, the state passed a law requiring New York City to use these funds to lower class size. But then the Great Recession hit, and the full state funding never materialized. Class sizes actually increased.
Today, classes in the city’s public schools are larger than they were in 2003—especially in the early grades. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, more than 330,000 students—roughly a third of the school population—were crammed into classes of 30 or more. On average, classes in the city’s public schools are 15 percent to 30 percent larger than they are in the rest of the state. While both Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, the city’s most recent mayors, promised to address this critical inequity during their campaigns, both failed to follow through once elected.
Now, the pandemic has brought the perennial problem of class size into sharper focus, as the need for social distancing has made smaller classes more critical than ever. At the same time, Covid-19 has helped bring unprecedented resources that could be used to address the issue: Over the next three years, the city is due to receive an additional $8 billion in federal and state funds for our schools.