N.Y.’s new math: Teachers up, kids down

·4 min read

The first day of school started with Mayor Adams and Chancellor David Banks welcoming students into a traditional K-12 system that has about 100,000 fewer students than it had before the pandemic accelerated an enrollment decline that began in the 2015-2016 school year even as the city’s population grew. The pair stressed how the public schools they’re accountable for need to be laser-focused on producing results for students.

The day ended with Gov. Hochul signing — over Adams’ and Banks’s previous vociferous objections — a bill to cap class sizes in New York City that had been collecting dust on her desk for three months after an overwhelming majority of state lawmakers passed it.

Something is out of whack here.

If projections hold, the new class-size cap will mean about 10,000 more teachers — a nearly 15% increase to fun-house mirror the 10% decrease in students.

While the feds have poured billions of one-off aid into schools to try and offset learning losses during the pandemic, the new law — which City Hall projects will cost $500 million a year for elementary schools alone once it’s fully implemented, not counting constructing new classroom and pension bills down the line — won’t take effect until next year, and then will be phased in over five years.

“We were always in support of lower class sizes,” Banks said, taking the L. “The challenge was always around how do you pay for it.” At least, he added, “We’ve got a year to try to figure it out.”

The governor, of course, will reap the political benefits now, ahead of her election bid in November.

The cap is just one of the ways that the Democrats who control Albany eroded mayoral control of the city’s schools this year.

Another state law weakened the mayor’s power over the until now mostly ceremonial Panel for Educational Policy that’s at the center of a lawsuit that City Council members are hoping will give them a do-over on the budget that most of them voted to pass and that trimmed the increase in the city’s share of the $38 billion school budget to reflect enrollment declines.

State lawmakers also rejected Adams’ ask for at least four more years of mayoral control and gave him just two years, meaning the mayor will have to return and ask again ahead of his own reelection run.

No one knows yet how badly New York City public school students were set back by the pandemic and the lengthy shutdown of in-person education that the UFT — which calls the new class size law “something to celebrate”— helped create, since many Regents tests were canceled over the last two years and the state and the city haven’t released most of the test results they do have from last year.

But it’s unquestionably bad. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” issued new results last month showing 20 years of academic gains undone as “COVID-19 shocked American education and stunted…academic growth” — with the poorest performers seeing the biggest drops to fall that much further behind.

The Northeast — not coincidentally made up of states that had many of the nation’s longest shutdowns and that spend the most on public education per student — had the biggest setbacks.

The region includes New York, which leads the nation in spending at more than $30,000 per student, with $18,000 of that, the most of any state and double the national average, going to teacher pay per pupil, according to 2020 U.S. Census data. Those numbers will only go up with 10,000 more teachers on the payroll, even if the city somehow reverses its mounting enrollment declines.

All else being equal, spending more on students is very good. But all else is never equal, and spending that doesn’t achieve any measurable result comes at the cost of investments that would.

Some of the money for smaller classes will likely come at the expense of existing acceleration and enrichment programs, which, in turn, could lead to more families with money and options exiting the public system or the city altogether.

While there’s research showing that smaller class sizes can benefit elementary school students, hiring inexperienced new teachers can cancel out those gains and there’s nothing showing class size impacts learning in the higher grades, as Chalkbeat’s Alex Zimmerman explained in an article titled “NYC class size limits could boost learning — but in practice, they often don’t. A new study explains why.”

The bill’s backers say the new cap is no big deal, since the average class size has already declined along with public school enrollment overall. That may work out as a math equation, with a growing number of teachers as the numerator and a shrinking number of kids as the denominator, but it’s through-the-looking-glass logic.

There’s no clear tie between the money being spent in New York’s schools and the results our kids are achieving, and Albany’s solution is to commit more money.

Something is out of whack here.

hsiegel@thecity.nyc