What can Cuomo do to ‘save’ charters?

Andrew Cuomo at the charter school rally in Albany. (Governor's office)
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Governor Andrew Cuomo offered few specifics when he pledged to "save charter schools" at a massive rally on Tuesday, beyond promising "financial capacity, physical space and the government's support."

But as Mayor Bill de Blasio begins to follow through on his promise to rethink co-locations and free rent for charters, Cuomo is actually in a position to help them significantly, as long as he's willing to spend some political capital to do so.

"The governor has a fair amount of latitude in insisting that certain spending take place," said James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan fiscal research organization based in New York. 

The politics wouldn't be simple. The governor would have to get the Legislature to go along with his ideas. And while he'd be pleasing the donors to Eva Moskowitz's Success Academies who have contributed heavily to him, the governor would further alienate union-aligned activists like Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, who blasted him for "severely underfunding public schools." 

State budget and education experts told Capital that Cuomo can help charters by maneuvering more money in the state budget towards the city's schools, and then stipulating that some of that money be used for charter revenue. 

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Parrott called that the "easiest option" for Cuomo, even though, he said, "it does represent a new level of state intervention regarding New York City."

Budget deals could hypothetically include additional funding for charters bartered for flexibility on teacher evaluations, sources say, or for myriad other non-education related priorities for members of the Senate and Assembly. 

Experts point out that one of the most influential players in Albany, Speaker Sheldon Silver, is neither a great fan of charters nor a strong critic, possibly leaving open room for negotiation especially since Silver has made passing the DREAM Act a top legislative priority that will require political cooperation. 

Without brokering a deal that effectively guarantees money for the charters, the governor's promises of help "become just talk," said David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. 

The governor could also work to change the state's charter law to include a mandate that New York City's charter students should either have access to sufficient space or that funding be made available to ensure that schools have enough money to pay for additional space, Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Network, told Capital.

"Education is fundamentally a state responsibility," Phillips said, adding that Cuomo "has really broad discretion" on how to provide for charters. 

Outside the governor's office, pro-charter state officials have promised to look into state funding options for the city's charters.

But the only concrete option that has been floated so far involves the state's Dormitory Authority, which experts say would not solve the major issues that charters face.

The Dormitory Authority allows large institutions like universities and hospitals to borrow money for construction at a lowered rate. But even well-funded charter networks "don't have ongoing revenue to use to pay rent or facilities," said David Umansky, the C.E.O. of Civic Builders, a school facilities developer which helps construct charters in New York City.

Umansky compared charters borrowing money to someone buying a house but being unable to service the mortgage. 

"The core issue is that the $13,500 New York City provides [each charter student] does not cover paying for facilities, and the Dormitory Authority doesn't change that fact," Umansky said.