When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio steamrolled into office eleven weeks ago, he was hailed as the leader of the nation’s long-denuded progressives, a towering liberal Democrat finally on a central stage, and carrying the hopes of an urban constituency two decades at the margins of pro-business, law-and-order rule.
But less than three months in, a political reality check: New York’s moderate and even fiscally-conservative governor, fellow Democrat Andrew Cuomo, has schooled the rookie mayor in the art of political power, using the new mayor’s signature election issue of free universal pre-Kindergarten education for all the city’s kids, paid for by the city’s wealthy, as a ready-made foil for his own ideas on education – and perhaps his own ambitions on the national stage.
In what appears to be a well-calculated political move, Governor Cuomo, who is hoping for his own landslide reelection mandate this November, has deftly shifted the debate from pre-K funding. Instead he is highlighting Mayor de Blasio’s long resistance to the city’s charter schools – independently-run public schools that rely on both state and private funding and are often outside the purview of the powerful teachers union, strong supporters of the mayor.
“We’ll have a statewide pre-K program,” said Cuomo Thursday in an appearance on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a political radio show. “It’ll be funded by the state. But that’s been established for a long time. The charter discussion is going to be new. And it’s going to be important.”
Indeed, it’s a discussion that may prove to become a national battle among Democrats, pitting de Blasio’s progressive constituency of unions, community activists, and parents wanting to improve traditional public schools, against moderates who support the kind of education reforms embodied in the charter movement.
Take four of de Blasio’s fellow Democrats now involved in the Mayors for Educational Excellence Tour, a nationwide effort to promote education innovation, including charter schools.
“New York is the home of some [of] the best charter schools in the nation,” Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif., told Slate. Citing studies indicating that New York’s charters are stronger than those in other states, he essentially rebuffed de Blasio, saying, “Mayors around the country, no matter how centrist or progressive, get that charters have become one of several good options for parents to choose from, if they are performing well.”
Last week, when de Blasio continued what many believe to be his quixotic insistence on his local tax on New Yorkers making more than a half million a year – a reliable long-term source of funding for his own pre-K goals, he says, which should be free from the budgetary vicissitudes of Albany – Cuomo pounced.
Earlier, de Blasio had issued a moratorium on the New York practice of housing many charter schools, in which seven percent of the system’s 1.1 million students are enrolled, in co-locations with existing public schools. This often caused tensions and bitterness, especially when the charters’ private funding caused a visible difference between the schools sharing the space.
And de Blasio went after the schools of his long-time nemesis Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman who runs Success Academies. The Harlem and Bronx-based charters, a vast majority of whose students are black and Latino, are the city’s largest and most successful.
So when the mayor went to Albany last week to lobby for his tax increase, planning a large rally for the progressive troops, supporters of the city’s now-embattled charter schools planned their own counter-rally at the same time, a rally attended by both Ms. Moskowitz and an unusually energetic Cuomo.
The strength of the counter rally surprised – and embarrassed – the mayor and his supporters.
“It’s unthinkable that charter schools could bring out three times as many people as the teachers union,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. “The teachers union is viewed as a behemoth in Albany, because it has such great troops. But there was Cuomo, in alliance with the charter school people, basically outdrawing the teachers union.... The people organizing the pre-K rally ended up with egg on their face.”
And though the mayor has allies in the state Assembly, his tax increase, most observers say, never had a chance of passing the state Senate, controlled by Republicans with the help of a few rogue Democrats, especially given the governor’s opposition.
Even so, on Thursday the Senate passed a preliminary budget resolution calling for $540 million in state funds to give New York its fully-funded pre-K and after school program – the full amount de Blasio always wanted.
So de Blasio claimed victory Thursday, even in the face of his tax’s certain defeat: “[The] state Senate’s majority has put forward an unprecedented commitment to fund free, full-day pre-K for every child in New York City, and after-school programs for every middle-schooler,” he said in a statement. “Their powerful support for our children and families – combined with Speaker Silver and the state Assembly’s passage of a resolution last night that includes a funding stream in the form of a tax on the city’s highest earners – represents a new consensus sweeping across this state.”
But the damage has been done. Charter schools are the focus of New York’s policy debate now, injected with a fresh momentum after de Blasio had vowed to deemphasize, if not thwart, their growing place in public education.
“We’re not going to be in a situation where charter schools stop,” said Cuomo during his radio appearance. “Not if I have anything to do with it.”