Albany’s gift to the teachers union will shackle NYC schools


The Legislature last week put a new spin on the debate over “mayoral control” of New York City’s schools by shackling the Big Apple with a costly class-size mandate. That restriction will impose on the city an unproven education reform whose primary champion is also its most direct beneficiary, the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing the city’s public-school teachers.

The bill was introduced by Senate Education Committee Chairman John Liu (D-Queens) the last week of the Legislative session and passed shortly before lawmakers decamped from Albany — the Assembly vote took place just after midnight. The bill’s adoption came just as the final New York City budget talks were heating up — specifically over funding cuts for schools set to occur under a formula that ties dollars to enrollment. 

The state’s class-size mandate was paired with a bill granting Mayor Adams a limited, two-year extension of mayoral control over city schools. That control is viewed primarily as the ability to choose the school chancellor and appoint most members of the panel overseeing broad education policy in the system.

Eric Adams
Albany also only granted New York City Mayor Eric Adams control over city schools for two more years.
Steven Hirsch

But what does control over schools mean if not the ability to direct dollars to them or decide how to staff classrooms? The new statutory class-size mandate does both.

The UFT has long sought smaller class sizes, which make it easier on teachers and require higher staffing levels (i.e., more union members and fees). Yet those are the only things the mandate will reliably achieve, based on surveys of the research on class size and educational achievement.

A 2018 review of 148 reports from 41 countries, for example, found some evidence of a “very small effect” on reading performance (equal to a 53% chance that a randomly selected student from a small class would outperform one from a larger class) and “no significant effect” on math achievement; indeed, “a possible adverse impact” could not be ruled out.

Empty classroom
The teachers unions have been advocating for a cap on classroom size.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

And in the real world, the cost of class-size reduction must be weighed against other reforms that are potentially more effective and less costly. That includes measures to improve teacher quality and accountability, which unions typically resist.

In any case, reduced class sizes are already a reality in Gotham. It didn’t take a law. The city’s public-school classrooms are roomier now than two years ago because tens of thousands of parents voted with their feet to dis-enroll their kids. During COVID, public-school enrollment in Gotham fell by more than 7%. And the mayor’s budget office forecasts further declines. 

New York City spent the most per pupil ($28,828) of any of the nation’s 100 largest school systems in 2020, according to federal data released last month. A sizable portion of each city school’s financing is (appropriately) tied to enrollment. But those schools that students fled during COVID were, in effect, spared funding cuts for two years, because the city redirected about $500 million of funds their way — including temporarily available federal pandemic relief dollars.

In the handshake budget agreement he announced yesterday with City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, the mayor finally drew a line in the sand, insisting that $215 million in enrollment-driven funding cuts go through, because the city can’t afford to keep funding empty seats. Yet the class-size mandate undermines such efforts by stipulating teacher-student ratios. It requires Gotham’s schools to retain and increase most types of instructional staff, thus forcing big cuts elsewhere in school budgets; city education officials preliminarily estimated it would cost roughly $500 million a year to implement just the K-5 portion of the mandate, and about $1 billion for all classrooms.   

Liu’s bill also gives the unions control concerning the specific class-size reduction plan the city is to draw up, which “shall be developed in collaboration with the collective bargaining units representing teachers and the principals and signed off on by the chancellor and the presidents of each bargaining unit.” Proposed exemptions from the mandate are also subject to a union veto.

Power without accountability is dangerous. If Albany is to take control of Gotham’s schools, outsource the job to the teachers unions and disempower the mayor (including by capping city charter schools), state lawmakers need to start owning the school system’s underperformance, its achievement gaps, its ongoing exodus of families and other challenges.

Are they prepared to do that?

Peter Warren is the director of research at the Empire Center.

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