Class sizes rose at nearly every grade level across the city last year, according to a report released by the city’s Education Department on Tuesday, the largest increases since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took over the school system in 2002.
School officials called the increase “unfortunate” but blamed it on the economy and said class size was largely in the hands of principals.
“Class size is related to the number of teachers schools employ,” said the report, which was sent to the City Council on Tuesday. “The combination of budget cuts and increases in teacher salaries means that principals, while they have continued to hire staff, have been cautious about hiring.”
The largest growth was in the third grade, where the average moved to 21.8 students per class, compared with 20.9 students last year. The city does not calculate an overall average because class sizes vary so much according to age; every increase was a gain of less than a single student. Class size increased even though enrollment in the city’s public schools decreased by nearly 4,000, to 1,019,525, because the number of classes also declined.
Critics of the department said the increases showed that the mayor and Chancellor Joel I. Klein have ignored efforts by the state and the City Council to reduce class size.
“Class-size reduction money has been in place for a long time, and they have done nothing with it,” said Councilman Robert Jackson, the chairman of the Education Committee. “They get an F. They don’t even get an A for trying, because getting an A for trying would mean all of what they had been doing would be geared toward getting the size down, which it has not.”
Mr. Jackson urged the state’s Education Department to take action against the city, including withholding money from its annual budget. Nearly $150 million in state money, part of an infusion that resulted from a longstanding lawsuit over school financing, was earmarked last year for reducing class size, either through creating new classrooms or hiring more staff members to co-teach in a single classroom.
Garth Harries, who oversees class size for the city’s Education Department, said that in an operating budget of nearly $17 billion, that was “at best marginal funds.”
“They are important obviously, but this is a truly massive system and what we put out today are aggregate numbers for that entire system,” Mr. Harries said. “Schools are all working to protect their priorities both in cuts they have already experienced and cuts that they anticipate.”
Mr. Harries emphasized that the increases were not startling, and that in most grades, the current average is below what it was in the 2002-3 school year, when Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein took control of the system.
But many students still attend classes that are more crowded than the city’s stated goals of 20 students per class in kindergarten through third grades (there are no targets for older grades). Roughly 45 percent of kindergarten students, for example, are in classes of 22 to 25, and more than 4,000 of the city’s roughly 61,000 first-graders are in classes with at least 28 students, according to Education Department figures.
The largest average class size, 26.9 students, is in the eighth grade.
Mr. Harries said it would take more time to know whether schools that now receive extra money from the state were able to reduce the number of students in their classrooms.
The report also warned that classes might soon get even bigger, as the department adjusts its five-year class-size reduction plan required by the state to “reflect the worsening economic climate.”
“The school system in the city is fighting to keep our heads at level, so that means that we will have to go back and have to reconsider the plan,” which was written in 2007, Mr. Harries said in an interview.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ union, who has long pushed for smaller classes, called the rise “disheartening and inexcusable.”“The state will not continue sending the city money for class-size reduction if the city continues to defy the terms and intent of the 14-year-old Campaign for Fiscal Equity court case,” she said in a statement. “It’s time for the city to quit making excuses and comply with the law.”