With unusual bluntness, de Blasio criticizes Success over pre-K

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Mayor Bill de Blasio. (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)
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Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized the Success Academy charter school network on Monday for refusing to sign a contract his administration says is mandatory for all organizations offering city-funded pre-kindergarten programs.

"Every other charter school organization we've worked with has signed a contract, all the religious schools have signed a contract because they all understand it is a commitment to uphold the standards we've put forth on behalf of the people," de Blasio said during a press conference at Brooklyn school. "We have an obligation as the government to set those standards."

The dispute, the latest in a series of spats between City Hall and Success, centers around a contract the city says is legally required to get city funds. Success' lawyers argue the contract is illegal because the city cannot have oversight over charters. 

De Blasio was uncharacteristically direct on the topic of charters when asked about the dispute.

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"We have very good and productive relationships with individual charter schools and charter networks, but if this particular charter network does not want to sign this contract, we have to draw a line there," he said. "We cannot accommodate any entity that won't sign a legally binding contract."

De Blasio's relative bluntness on the topic signals a notable change from his most recent major blow-up with Success exactly two years ago. De Blasio was soundly defeated by Success CEO Eva Moskowitz in a very public fight over school space, despite largely unsuccessful efforts to de-escalate the battle with a conciliatory speech at Riverside Church and other overtures.

City Hall's relations with the influential charter sector have been tense ever since, though the de Blasio administration has attempted to make peace with pockets of the sector. 

Perhaps emboldened by his modest alliances with some charter leaders and schools, and the overwhelmingly positive reception to his universal pre-K program in general, de Blasio seems comfortable directly confronting Success over the pre-K fight.

He is helped by the fact Success' so-called #SaveOurPreK campaign has failed to garner anything approaching the amount of attention as the school space battle, when Moskowitz was making front-page news regularly for declaring that de Blasio was effectively shuttering high-performing charter schools. 

Deputy mayor Richard Buery, who oversees the city's pre-K program and serves as City Hall's unofficial emissary to the charter sector, echoed de Blasio on Monday.

"Because this is a Department of Education program, there is simply no mechanism for the city to pay providers unless they sign the contract," Buery said. Then, offering an olive branch to the program, he said, "we hope that Success will reconsider because we'd love to have those kids in the program. And, again, there's no practical reason they shouldn't because there's nothing about that pre-K program that this contract stands in the way of operating."

Moskowitz recently appealed to state education commissioner MaryEllen Elia to settle the legal discord between the city and state, assigning the state a seemingly arbitrary deadline of Feb. 15. When the State Education Department did not respond by that date, Success extended its deadline to March 1. 

Success spokesman Stefan Friedman fired back at de Blasio on Monday.

"Mayor de Blasio ironically continues to tout his supposed Pre-K successes while leaving thousands of students out in the cold," Friedman said in a statement. "One of the primary reasons Success scholars and teachers have been able to achieve so much is their ability to learn and work without the shackles of bureaucracy exemplified by this 241-page contract. We look forward to continuing our successful program and hope Mayor de Blasio will start including Success students in his pre-K victory lap." 

Although no other charter networks offering pre-K have refused to sign the contract, the leaders of the Achievement First and Public Prep charter networks have sided with Success in its fight with the city, with Achievement First's leaders claiming they did not offer the city's pre-K program because of the rigidity of the contract.

James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, has also sided with Success, arguing the city cannot legally oversee charters. 

De Blasio also said Monday the city has received 48,748 applications for pre-K spots for next year, and encouraged all families to apply before the March 4 deadline.

He said he expects to enroll about the same number of 4-year-olds as last year — roughly 68,000.

"The number we reached this year was a little less than we thought would be ideal, but not much less. We're seeking that natural maximum number, it will take us several years," de Blasio said, noting the city ultimately hopes to enroll about 70,000 children in pre-K annually.