By: Antonio Reynoso, Council Member and Brooklyn Borough President candidate
This fall, students and teachers will finally return to New York City's public schools in-person, at full capacity after a challenging year. But more than half of New York City's 1.1 million students will be going back to the same overcrowded, under-resourced schools they left behind in 2020.
As the child of immigrants, who grew up here and attended our public schools, I know the transformative power of a good education, and the importance of smaller class size to ensure the best outcomes for students. As we prepare to welcome back all students to in-person learning, this is the moment to address the longstanding structural issues that lead to overcrowded, inequitable public schools in the first place, particularly in low-income communities of color.
Across our city, 54% of elementary and middle school students and 47% of high school students attend schools that are overcrowded. The research on this issue is overwhelmingly clear: Overcrowded schools lead to poor outcomes for our students and make it nearly impossible for teachers and school staff to effectively do their jobs.
Smaller class sizes can lead to better test outcomes, improved school engagement, and lower dropout rates. Students in overcrowded NYC schools scored lower on math and reading exams than kids in schools that don't face overcrowding. And in a survey of NYC teachers, 99 percent agreed that reducing class sizes would be the most effective reform to improve learning.
This is an issue our city has grappled with for decades, and not an easy problem to solve. To meet the needs of all our students and teachers, we have to fundamentally reshape our city planning processes and shift our budget priorities to make real investments in our communities.
This is no small feat, but after a year that has laid bare the inequities of our education system — from the vast digital divide to the lack of resources in marginalized communities — now is the time to push for bold action to support our schools and set our students up for success. As Brooklyn Borough President, I will push for meaningful reforms to the process of planning, siting, and constructing new seats so that we can put all students on a path to success.
First and foremost, we need to address the lack of comprehensive city planning that led us here. In Brooklyn, we have severe overcrowding in some school districts, like District 20 in Southern Brooklyn, and large class sizes throughout the borough. And yet, the city can currently still approve new large-scale residential development, while ignoring the fact that new residents may need new schools, because of how overcrowded the existing schools are. In the face of an ongoing affordable housing crisis, of course we need to build new, affordable units — but we're failing our families if we don't also ensure that they have the schools and city services they need to thrive here.
Part of the issue is that the city's environmental review process has not held developers accountable for the impact of new development on public schools. Often, there is no requirement that a new school is built to mitigate the impacts of new development on local schools. Take, for example, the case of Downtown Brooklyn, where a planned office district ended up being almost entirely residential, creating a severe need for new schools that had not been accounted for in the planning.
As Borough President, I will demand that the impact on school populations be fully disclosed and mitigated before approving any development proposal.
Next, the city fails to coordinate its capital budget with its planning processes. New residential districts are proposed by the Department of City Planning with limited involvement from the School Construction Authority. I have proposed a comprehensive planning process that would require the City to develop a long term plan that is aligned with its ten year capital plan. I'll fight to ensure that our planning processes take into account the holistic needs of the community from the outset — not as an afterthought.
We should also make use of the School Construction Authority's budget to address school overcrowding. The SCA has billions in unused capital dollars set aside for new schools and capacity projects that could be used to build a number of much-needed new schools right now. However, because of inefficient siting processes, that funding is unused. To help expedite the development process, local communities, government, and the development community should work together to help unleash this capital funding and find creative places to site new schools, particularly in mixed-use developments. Using those dollars now would not only address overcrowding, but also provide much needed jobs for Brooklyn's economic recovery.
In many ways, the trend towards increased enrollment in public schools reflects positively on our city. People are staying here, moving here, raising their families here, and sending their kids to our public schools. It's our job to ensure that we have the infrastructure to meet their needs. As Borough President, I'll fight to ensure that all kids have the space to learn, the support they deserve, and the resources they need to thrive. Our families deserve nothing less.