ALBANY - A fight for the future of charter schools is brewing in Albany involving New York's top political leaders and well-financed lobbyists.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vowed to end what he called the "monopoly" on public education held by teachers unions, school boards and other lobbying groups. Now his promise to bolster charter schools is being joined by Senate Republicans emboldened by their unlikely takeover of the chamber's majority as a result of this month's election.
That potential alliance could be tested as early as December, in a possible special session, just months after Senate Democrats, teachers unions and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had tilted the momentum away from charter schools.
"The climate in Albany this year is ripe for the governor to be bold," said Jenny Sedlis of StudentsFirstNY, a charter schools advocacy group. That group's board members include billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn; former New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein and politically influential charter school operator Eva Moskowitz.
Cuomo and the incoming Senate Republican majority want to remove or greatly raise the limit on the number of the publicly funded, privately run schools. Charter schools were created under a 1998 state law that provides an alternative to failing public schools and a way to experiment with longer school days and other innovations.
"Charter schools will be the central issue in the early part of the [legislative] session," said one legislative staffer familiar with the discussions. A Republican senator said: "It's absolutely going to be big."
Currently, 311 charter schools have been approved statewide, 248 of which are open this school year, including five on Long Island serving more than 2,000 students. Charter schools teach 92,000 students statewide, with nearly 78 percent in New York City. A total of 158 charters remain available under the cap while supporters say the waiting list is more than 50,000 names long.
Four more charter schools were approved Tuesday by the state Board of Regents; the State University of New York, which has approved 117 charter schools, plans to consider more in January. Charter school students represent less than 4 percent of the total state school population.
A polarizing topic
Other proposals teed up for next year's legislative session include requiring that all charter schools either be provided space in traditional public schools or get more state aid to compensate for rent so that leases are less of a drain on instruction. In addition, renewal of the state law providing mayoral control of New York City schools is due to expire this year, and supporters of charter schools want to limit the power of local officials to block more charter schools in the city.
Those proposals could be a huge incentive for more national players to start charter schools in New York, lobbyists on both sides of the issue agreed.
Last Monday, Senate leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) included charter schools on a short list of legislative priorities. The five-member Independent Democrat Conference, angling to continue a close relationship with the Republicans holding a narrow majority, also supports charter schools.
On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) said he couldn't yet comment on the polarizing issue that has created divisions within his own Democratic majority.
"I have no thoughts at this point," Silver told Newsday.
Opponents of charter schools, however, say the 20-year experiment has proved too much of a drain on struggling public schools, which are now further restricted by Albany's 2 percent cap on the growth in school taxes. Opponents contend the academic performance of charter schools is mixed, and skewed by the ability to attract more motivated students and families without serving as many immigrants learning English, special education students or homeless children.
Charter school advocates note that student test scores, including those in some of New York's poorest neighborhoods, are better than in public schools. Supporters also note that unlike chronically failing traditional public schools, a failing charter school working within a five-year charter is shut down, as more than two dozen have already.
Big bets placed
Before the November elections, opponents expected 2015 would be the year to roll back or end the charter school program because liberal Democrats were expecting to win the Senate majority. The effort was expected to be headed by de Blasio, the state's progressive leader, who campaigned a year ago to curb the growth of charter schools.
Although Democrats failed to win the Senate, big bets even by Albany standards have already been placed.
The Balanced Albany political arm of StudentsFirstNY spread $3.9 million in contributions in the fall election campaign. Cuomo received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions this year by Wall Street names who support charter schools, including Kenneth Langone, who founded Home Depot stores, and Icahn, the billionaire activist.
Meanwhile, the New York State United Teachers union led the opposition to charter schools by contributing $3.8 million to Senate Democrats, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Millions more was spent on lobbying by each side over the past year.
Carl Korn, spokesman for the NYSUT union, insists there is "no compelling reason to do anything with the cap on charters."
"With public schools still recovering from billions of dollars in cuts incurred during the Great Recession, restoring funding and investing in 'regular' public schools, which serve the vast majority of students, should be the state's top priority," Korn said. "The push for facilities funding and a lifting of the cap is nothing more than a money grab by those who want to privatize public education and make profits off of New York's children."
Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which lobbies for traditional public schools, said Cuomo and the Senate Republicans are making a "frontal assault on our public schools." He calls charter schools "privatization" of public education because companies operate the schools.
Easton said political support for charter schools is payback to Wall Street investors at the expense of students.
Complicating matters is the possible linking of a charter schools measure to one that would provide a tax credit for families that pay tuition to religious and other nonpublic schools, said legislators and lobbyists. Cuomo failed to fulfill his promise to include the long-sought credit in his budget passed in March, which drew a sharp rebuke in TV ads from Cardinal Timothy Dolan. But Cuomo resurrected the idea late in his campaign in a promise to Hasidic leaders.
"We absolutely expect the tax credit proposal to come up again because we are going to make certain that it does," said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York Catholic Conference. "The Senate majority remains committed to it, and Gov. Cuomo recently, on more than one occasion, reiterated his desire to get it done . . . we think this could well be the year it gets done."
Also being considered in any charter school deal is a proposal for a large increase in aid to all public schools, which is sought by Silver.
Cuomo declined to comment.
The issue could come to the fore as soon as December. That's when Cuomo and the legislative leaders are considering holding a special session to raise lawmakers' pay for the first time since 1999, when the base pay was set at $79,500.
Legislative pay raises provide a governor with great leverage. In that last deal for a pay raise, Republican Gov. George Pataki extracted an agreement on the law authorizing charter schools.
Whenever the bell is rung, it will be a heavyweight battle.
De Blasio has called charter schools "a destructive impact" on traditional public schools.
"I think we have a good dynamic right with the cap the way it is," de Blasio said last Monday. "We've got a balance right now that makes sense."
Supporters of charter schools, however, see a rare opportunity to bust the cap.
"It's clearly time to eliminate that as an arbitrary cap on the number of good schools the state can have," said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter Center, an advocacy group.
He said charter school advocates will also lobby for more building aid or space in traditional schools, but he wouldn't discuss his strategy for the coming legislative session.
With Emily Ngo