Reducing class sizes and strengthening enforcement of class size limitations

MORE Caucus demands the city at least adhere to the class sizes directed by the Contracts For Excellence law in 2007 (20 for k-3, 23 for 4-8, 25 for 9-12).

In 2014, a UFT survey found that 99% of teachers considered reducing class size to be a reform they would like pursued. From 2008-2013, the #1 priority listed on the DOE’s parent survey was the reduction of class sizes. There is a great deal of evidence that smaller classes help with school climate, school safety, teacher attrition, and student achievement. With educators and parents united for smaller class sizes, the UFT could be well-positioned to win class size reduction demands. 

But the UFT leadership believes that the only way to achieve class size reductions would be to make concessions in other areas, such as salary, so they have decided not to bother with any battle. However, the UFT’s own history contradicts this: it fought for and won both lower class sizes and higher salaries in the 1960s using the strike and strike threats to achieve demands. In 1963, the UFT even negotiated a pilot program for class size limitations of 22 students at certain struggling schools, which showed exceptionally strong results over the following decade.

Arguments against smaller class sizes focus on the teacher’s effectiveness as the determining factor in student success, not the ratio of students to teachers. Such arguments claim that an effective teacher can teach as many students as they are given in an effective manner. This was expounded by mayoral front runner Eric Adams, who (mistakenly, allegedly) said he thought a teacher could have a class size as high as 400 students (he later corrected that he meant 40 students, still well above the current class size guidelines). 

As of August 2021, the UFT has claimed victory because of its success in lobbying for a city council bill introduced by Mark Treyger that would amend the city building codes to limit the amount of students per square feet of floor. This would, in effect, lower class sizes. The UFT even promoted how it would have class sizes less than 20 and as low as 14. However, this is all just noise. Many of the officials from the city government and union that are claiming victory will not have to stick around to see if this can actually get passed, implemented, and executed. (It wouldn’t take effect until 2024, according to their own plan.) And if they can get it passed, a mayor such as Eric Adams would probably never enforce such codes and limitations on class size. We need the UFT to negotiate lower class size caps into the next UFT contract so that we, the workers, can make sure our students' and schools’ needs are being met, not leaving it up to funding promises or the political will of career politicians. 

Contracts for Excellence Law

In 2006, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that students were being denied their state constitutional right to an adequate education.  The Contracts for Excellence law passed the following year required the DOE to reduce class sizes over a 5-year period, tying funding to this initiative. 

It also laid out the following directives on appropriate class sizes: 

  • 20 students in elementary school
  • 23 students in middle school 
  • 25 students in high school

While schools have been receiving some of this funding, class size averages have been increasing in the decade-plus since. The UFT and the DOE have done nothing to stop this.


Article 7M - Class Size Limitations

This contract article sets the following class size limitations: 

  • Pre-Kindergarten: 18 students 
  • Kindergarten: 25 students 
  • Elementary school: 32 students 
  • Junior high school: 33 students 
  • Title I junior high school: 30 students 
  • Junior high school trade shop: 24 students
  • Title I junior high school trade shop: 22 students
  • Junior high and high school physical education: 50 students per teacher
  • High school general education: 34 students
  • High school trade shop: 28 students 
  • High school music education: 50 students per teacher

As you can see, the UFT directly negotiates contracts that do not comply with the Contract for Excellence from 2007. In fact, the UFT hasn’t negotiated a contract to lower class size since the 1960s and has actually allowed expanded class sizes in subsequent contracts over the decades. 

Expedited Grievance Process (2019 Contract)

The most recent UFT contractual agreement, negotiated in 2018 and implemented in 2019, provides for an expedited grievance process for class size violations. The principal and the chapter leader attempt to resolve any class size violations for the first ten days, in consultation with the superintendent and district representative. After that, the issue is dealt with by the superintendent and district representative for another ten days, at which point it goes to a citywide “class size labor management committee.” 

There are two main issues here:

  1. the class size grievance process isn’t really “expedited” in any meaningful sense; it is only “expedited” in that it is more rapid than prior contracts.  Almost a month of classes elapses before the issue is even elevated to the citywide central committee. 
  2. the contract does not provide any enforceable directives, such as taking over school programming from the principal or compensating for violations with additional funding from the city 

Thousands of classes still violate the contractual class size limitations every year during these first weeks of semesters, sometimes continuing for the entire year.  

What We Need

While arguments could be made for even lower class sizes, MORE Caucus demands the city at least adhere to the class sizes directed by the Contracts For Excellence law in 2007 (20 for k-3, 23 for 4-8, 25 for 9-12). 

Such class size limitations should be negotiated into the UFT teacher contract in 2022. To win political support UFT should promote the following funding sources: 

  • Increased wealth taxes by the state government with revenue automatically earmarked for education
  • Decreased positions in the Department of Education bureaucracy at the district and central levels
  • Assigning all Active Teacher Reserve employees into classroom positions
  • Creating a capital plan with a timetable that increases the rate of school construction (and renovation/repurposing) 
  • Creating a hiring initiative for new teachers at all grade levels that is tied to free tuition at CUNY 

Further, the UFT needs to demand and achieve enforceable class size violation mechanisms. The current so-called expedited grievance process is insufficient and does not stem the routine violations of class size limitations that too often affect poor and black/brown students. Tying class size violations to control of school programming or additional city fundings are ways to ensure violations do not persistently and routinely occur. 

How to Win Class Size Demands

Currently, the UFT is promoting a pilot program at 100 schools for reduced class sizes that the city has funded in the current annual budget. [Note: There are over 1700 schools in the DOE.] In the spring of 2021, the UFT also began circulating a petition for expanded class size reductions. Both of these steps fit within the UNITY Caucus strategy of accommodating and collaborating with the city, instead of making bold demands in conjunction with communities, organizing rank-and-file members, and preparing a credible strike threat.

The UFT needs to begin school-based organizing campaigns where chapters coordinate with parents to demand smaller class sizes. The UFT also needs to begin strike readiness workshops for chapter leaders and delegates so that rank-and-file members can become motivated to take preliminary action steps and the UFT can make a credible strike threat in the 2022 contract negotiations. With demand-driven chapter organizing and collaboration with parents and communities, the UFT can win long overdue class size reduction and enforcement.