Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, is one of the nation’s most persistent advocates of class size reduction. She is the voice of many parents in New York City, who regularly tell pollsters that their number 1 wish for their children is smaller classes. Now that the city’s public schools anticipate a new infusion of funds, Haimson and many parents are pressing to get a commitment from the city to reduce class sizes.

She writes in The Nation:

New York City public schools are often as crushed as the subway during rush hour, with literally thousands of students forced to learn in overstuffed classrooms—sitting side by side, elbows knocking into each other, or sometimes leaning against the wall or resting on a radiator. Even in the age of Covid-19, hallways are so jam-packed it can be hard for students to get to their next class.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way—and, if the city’s mayor and the City Council speaker would pass a crucial piece of legislation limiting class sizes in New York’s public schools, it wouldn’t have to continue. But as the end of the council’s term ticks closer, the two are standing in the way of a popular bill, adding a new and frustrating chapter to a drama that’s been playing out for decades.

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.

The federal funds are meant to help the city improve both the health and safety of the classroom environment—goals that smaller classes could help achieve. The state funds—which amount to $1.3 billion in additional annual aid, due to be phased in over three years—represent the long-overdue fulfillment of the mandate of the CFE case.

Together, these funds represent a remarkable opportunity, one the City Council recognized when it proposed that a substantial portion of them be allocated toward reducing class size. But the mayor balked. So the council’s education chair, Mark Treyger, introduced Int. 2374 in July, a bill that would effectively phase in smaller classes over three years. It would do this by increasing the per student square footage required in classrooms, ranging from about 18 to 26, depending on the grade level and room size.

The legislation currently has 41 cosponsors out of 50 members—a supermajority that could overturn the mayor’s likely veto. Yet the vote on this bill has been delayed by Speaker Corey Johnson, despite the fact that there are fewer than two weeks before the council adjourns for the year and a new one takes over in January.

Read on to review the research supporting the value of class size reduction as the most important and effective reform that schools should enact.

Why is City Council Chair Corey Johnson blocking this crucial measure?