Andrew Cuomo’s charter epiphany

Andrew Cuomo. (Governor's Office)
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ALBANY—Once a relative agnostic on charter schools, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now a full-fledged evangelical.

Though Cuomo has been relatively quiet on the publicly funded and privately run schools for most of his time in his office, he declared last week that charter-school protections are an essential part of the state budget negotiations.

Cuomo has assailed the state's public schools for years, blasting their steep costs, low graduation rates and a system that guaranteed jobs to poor-performing teachers. But he had largely refrained from offering charter schools as a key solution to those problems, instead advocating systemic changes like teacher evaluations in traditional public schools.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's moves to rein in charters, as Cuomo was battling him on other education issues, have changed the governor's rhetoric at lightning speed, highlighted by the governor's decision to take to the Capitol steps to speak to thousands of charter school parents and students who traveled to Albany to protest the mayor's reversal of three charter co-locations.

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In a number of recent interviews, Cuomo has praised the impact charters have had on public education and said he will be their protector.

For every move de Blasio has made to treat charters less favorably relative to traditional public schools than they were treated by the previous administration, Cuomo has countered with promises of more charter funding and benefits.

The end result is that charters will likely emerge from this legislative session with stronger protections than they have enjoyed for years, with expanded grades and more money for building. That marks a significant change for Cuomo, who has remained neutral to charters in the last three years—neither cutting nor increasing their funding.

“It has created an opportunity to start a conversation,” said Bob Bellafiore, a former senior aide in the Pataki administration who helped write the state's charter school laws. “The situation in New York City has opened the door.”

Cuomo has not been a complete bystander, in terms of addressing the charter movement's concerns. He backed some of the public education changes central to the education reform movement, including merit pay for teachers, longer school days and years and educator evaluations.

But he did not see fit to focus on charter schools in his State of the State speech in January, where he lays out his economic and policy goals for the year, any more than he'd chosen to focus on them at any point since becoming governor.

In fact, in the three years Cuomo has been in office, charter schools have still received less funding per student than traditional public schools, on average about 75 cents on the dollar. Under the self-described “student lobbyist,” they've received no per-pupil building aid and have been banned from creating pre-kindergarten classrooms. Even as Cuomo expanded pre-kindergarten in last year's budget, charter schools remained ineligible to offer it and were shut out of the pot of money, though advocates have pushed for it for years.

“Politics often requires a crisis to act and the situation in New York City has created that,” said James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center.

The "crisis" that would eventually give Cuomo his opening started with de Blasio's promise to charge some charters rent, a dramatic shift from the charter-friendly tenure of Michael Bloomberg. The rent plan didn't appear enough to nudge Cuomo.

The city Department of Education diverted $210 million previously marked for charter construction toward pre-K expansion. And the city reversed those three planned co-locations of Success Academy charters into traditional public schools.

Charter parents have already filed a lawsuit, alleging that de Blasio was targeting Success Academy Charter Schools C.E.O. Eva Moskowitz, who turned to Cuomo for help earlier this year.

Cuomo's sudden shift could have a ripple effect throughout the entire charter sector, said Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Network. Charter schools in cities like Buffalo were already “on the ropes” because of the lack of building aid and had trouble paying for the space they needed to expand enough to meet rising demand. If some version of the Senate plan to fund building aid remains in the final budget, it will allow charters upstate to expand after a period of retrenchment, he said. Cuomo also wants charters to be able to add pre-kindergarten, something advocates have long wanted. Both of those additions could take another significant chunk of money from traditional public schools.

Cuomo has now said he wants to prevent mayors from interfering with the operations of charter schools, which directly threatens the mayoral control of schools that only de Blasio holds, among all of the state's mayors. Regaining mayoral control of schools was one Michael Bloomberg's greatest legislative achievements as mayor; it marked the first time City Hall gained discretion over education policy since the Lindsay administration, when those powers were decentralized and major decisions were made by an education board.

On Monday, Cuomo reiterated his claim that it was up to him to protect charter schools and that he would use the budget or a bill to ensure that their growth in New York cannot be dialed back by a hostile mayor.

He did not mention de Blasio by name. But he didn't have to.

“Their fear, writ large, is if you have a city that says, I don't want to have any more charter schools, that a city could basically stop the creation of more charter schools by limiting the location and the funding,” he said. “I think that would be problematic.”