City’s charter movement gets the Albany day it wanted

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Several thousand people rallied in Albany in support of charter schools. (AP Photo/Tim Roske)
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New York City's charter school advocates, and their highest-profile champion Eva Moskowitz, got the high-profile rally day they wanted in Albany on Tuesday.

After the de Blasio administration announced the reversals of three co-locations of Moskowitz' Success Academy schools last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged to "save charter schools" during a massive rally on the steps of the Capitol.

"It was a good day," New York City Charter Center C.E.O. James Merriman told Capital.

That may have been a political understatement, especially after a series of defeats downstate.

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Even though charter leaders publicly assessed a recent meeting with city schools chancellor Carmen Fariña as "productive," advocates said privately that the meeting was unsatisfying and did not answer any of the pressing questions they have about co-location arrangements and the looming possibility of rent.

Anxiety and disappointment within the sector crystallized into full-blown panic last week, particularly for Moskowitz's Success network, as the Department of Education announced that it would reverse three co-locations approved during the Bloomberg administration that would have expanded the Success network. 

Failing to gain any traction within the de Blasio administration or with other city-based elected officials, charter leaders quickly shifted their advocacy efforts up to Albany, where they hoped for a more receptive audience.

That pivot seems to have paid off on Tuesday, as the city's charter sector formally gained a new friend in Cuomo, who has already proven his ability to big-foot de Blasio on education issue with his opposition to the mayor's proposed pre-K tax on high earners.

Other charter leaders and advocates who attended the rally said privately that they thought that Tuesday could not have gone better for them optically, but offered only generalized press release-type language on the record, to avoid seeming like they were gloating over a rally that overshadowed the mayor's.

Cuomo has been a supporter of charter schools, but has communicated the message largely through emissaries like lieutenant governor Robert Duffy, who told the city's charter contingent it had the "support" of the Cuomo administration during a rally last month.

But it was Cuomo himself who stood before the massive crowd outside the Capitol on Tuesday, and pledged "financial capacity, physical space and the government's support" to help the city's charters. He did not mention de Blasio by name when he promised to "save" charters, but the implication about who he would save them from was clear.

The governor's decision to involve himself so conspicuously in the charter argument, coupled with the help he provided charter advocates in effectively trumping the de Blasio rally, sets up a dynamic similar to the pre-K fight.

Some pre-K supporters criticized Cuomo for speaking at the charter rally just a few minutes after mayor Bill de Blasio addressed the pre-K rally.

"Governor Cuomo's appearance is extremely troubling considering he is simultaneously severely underfunding public schools," said Billy Easton, the executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, in a statement. "The governor repeatedly says 'money doesn't matter' in education, but when it comes to giving funding to privately-run charter schools, it's all about the money."

During his speech, Cuomo even gave the embattled Moskowitz a nod, referencing a Success Academy in the South Bronx as an example of an excellent charter. 

Moskowitz told reporters on Tuesday that she was "delighted" to have an ally in Cuomo, after feeling "alone" in the fight for the city's charters. 

After the rally, Moskowitz said in a statement, "the bipartisan support of Governor Cuomo, Senator Skelos, Senator Klein, Assemblyman Camara [a pro-charter Democrat from Brooklyn] and so many others at today's historic rally shows what can happen when 11,000 families come together to support their children's futures."

That number was almost certainly inflated; the crowd looked to be significantly less than that. But the fact is that organizers had drawn (or bused in, in many cases) thousands of students and parents in matching shirts and trumped a smaller rally in support of de Blasio's pre-K plan that had been in the works for months. 

While the charter rally was held outside on the steps of the Capitol, the pre-K rally was held at Albany's indoor armory, which has also hosted minor league basketball games and roller derby. 

Moskowitz had closed all 22 of her schools and bused up thousands of children for the rally (a decision which itself became the subject of a minor political controversy). 

Cuomo's staff lent a hand in comparing the two rallies, tweeting pictures of the two locations and pitching local reporters on the numbers, arguing that far more people were gathered at the charter rally. Cuomo's staff also helped shuffle children to the Capitol steps, where they could be seen standing behind the podium. 

Charter leaders insisted that they were not in Albany to overshadow the pre-K rally.

"We enhanced the message of how important pre-K is today," Merriman said. "We didn't detract from it."

But that, clearly, wasn't the whole story.