The de Blasio administration is making nice with some of the city’s charter school leaders just in time to seek their support for a legislative priority that has so far eluded them: renewing mayoral control.
Deputy Mayor Richard Buery was the featured speaker at a Tuesday event hosted by the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, a group of independent charter schools whose relationship with the de Blasio administration had recently soured. In his speech, Buery praised the coalition’s advocacy work and encouraged a renewed partnership with the city, then asked the audience to take a long-term view of the city’s needs.
“Whatever you believe about Mayor de Blasio’s views on education, whatever you believe about Chancellor Fariña, one thing I think we can all agree on is that we don’t want to go back in time,” Buery said, referring to the period before the mayor was granted control of the city’s schools in 2002. “That whoever is in charge, having a system where the mayor is clearly in charge, where the mayor is clearly accountable for results, is the best system for transparency and accountability and therefore can drive results.”
Charter leaders on Tuesday said they largely agreed with Buery. “There’s just no point in going back,” said Steve Zimmerman, who heads the coalition. “It shouldn’t be contingent on whoever’s in office.”
“I believe this is bigger than just who the mayor is now,” said Jeff Ginsburg, executive director of East Harlem Tutorial Program, which operates the East Harlem Scholars Academies network, whose schools are not coalition members.
When mayoral control was last due to expire in 2009, supporters of charter schools played a starring role in helping then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg get the law renewed. The Robin Hood Foundation, which provides charter school start-up funding, supported a lobbying campaign headed by then-Harlem Children’s Zone CEO Geoffrey Canada, who pointed to Bloomberg’s encouragement of charter schools as a reason for his support.
The shift is a symptom of the de Blasio administration’s fractious relationship with the charter sector. Last year, charter advocates helped derail de Blasio’s plans to charge rent to co-located charter schools, and as recently as a month ago, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO Eva Moskowitz and James Merriman of the New York City Charter Center were saying the mayor’s policy ideas should cause state lawmakers to think twice about extending his power.
Merriman said in a statement that his support for mayoral control has not wavered with the new administration, but that passage remains closely linked to allowing more charter schools to open in New York City. The state’s current cap on charter schools allows for another 25 to be authorized to open in the city, and charter leaders say it’s important to lift the cap now to allow for the sector to continue to grow.
“We supported mayoral control under Mayor Bloomberg and we support it under Mayor de Blasio but are mystified why the mayor won’t support eliminating the charter cap, and in so doing, make the path to mayoral control renewal much easier and outcomes for kids better,” Merriman said.
Buery did not mention the cap in his remarks on Tuesday, and reiterated the mayor’s opposition to lifting the cap in a brief interview.
“We think there’s lots of great work to do, lots of great opportunities for the sector to continue to flourish and grow, but we’re not in a position where we need to raise the cap to do that,” Buery said.
Most of the charter schools at the event are independent without plans to replicate and expand, unlike the city’s charter management organizations, the largest of which, Success Academy, has 32 schools. But speakers said they supported lifting the cap for political reasons.
“Whether we get it this time or not, I think we need to continue to push for it because a movement that’s capped is a movement that eventually dies,” said Stacey Gauthier, principal of the Renaissance Charter School in Queens.
Buery did note one area that the de Blasio administration is making an effort to give charter schools what they ask for. After leaders of the coalition helped him understand how important it is for charter schools in private space to have access to facilities funding, Buery said, the city has not sought to impede a state law that requires the city to provide that funding to new and expanding charters — even though it will cost over $30 million over the next two years alone.
“We’ve been going out of our way to make sure the process has not been contentious,” Buery said, referring to legal appeals that schools must file to receive the funding. “That it’s speedy and collaborative, and it really feels like, as much as possible, we can get money out to schools that need it.”
His request for charter leaders’ support is the latest case of the Blasio administration has reaching beyond its political base to portray mayoral control as an issue with wide-ranging support. De Blasio has also cited the endorsements of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and dozens of prominent business leaders. (De Blasio’s reliable ally, the United Federation of Teachers, officially opposes the current mayoral control setup but has stayed quiet during the lobbying effort.)
Buery’s appearance came a day after the heads of several nonprofit organizations that run or support charter schools — Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem RBI, New Visions for Public Schools, and Civic Builders — signed onto a letter meant to “strongly urge” state lawmakers to make mayoral control permanent. At minimum, they wrote, mayoral control should be renewed for three years, as the Assembly and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have proposed. (The Republican-controlled Senate has proposed a one-year extension that would weaken mayoral control and be paired with a law that raising the charter cap.) Forty-five organizations signed onto the letter in all.
“We have seen that mayoral control makes possible the coordination and focus that is necessary to achieve ambitious large-scale reform: expanding pre-k to serve every child who needs it by September; launching Community Schools that meet students’ social, emotional, and health and mental health needs; and focusing resources and accountability on the city’s most struggling schools,” the letter reads.