Backed by Cuomo, Senate vaults charter schools to center of budget talks

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Senate leaders are coming through on their fiery pledges to use legislative power to help the state’s charter school sector continue to thrive.

The Senate is including a package of bills in its budget proposal that would increase funding for charter school students; essentially annul New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reversals of three Success Academy charter school co-locations; allow charters to tap into state prekindergarten funds; and allocate millions in state-funded building aid for charter students currently in private space.

The plan would also encourage New York City to provide rent-free space to new charter schools or pay for private facilities costs out of its own budget. A final provision, a change to the state’s charter school law, would diminish New York City’s already weakened charter school authorizing power.

Details of the legislative action were formally released as a budget resolution, which the Senate is expected to vote on as early as tonight. They back up comments made earlier in the day by Cuomo, who declared that he would not only support the Senate’s charter school legislation, but also make it a top priority as budget negotiations get underway this month.

“I think that’s going to be the main educational issue,” Cuomo said of the negotiations during a radio interview this morning.

He said it even more clearly in a statement released later in the day: “The future of charter schools must be protected in this budget, and I will fight to ensure that it is.”

The proposals laid out in the Senate’s resolution, along with what the Assembly released yesterday, create a framework for all budget talks moving forward. The legislature has until the end of March to sign off on a final budget.

The state’s attention to charters schools has increased dramatically in recent weeks, ignited by an escalating space-sharing battle between de Blasio and Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz. Underlying their political tension has been larger policy questions about the role of charter schools.

Cuomo has repeatedly sided with Moskowitz in the fight after not mentioning charter schools during his budget presentation in January but

The Senate’s package means Cuomo has support from a majority of the players who control state budget negotiations. It also sets up a showdown with the lone dissenting negotiator at the table, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who said last week that charter schools are not a priority that needs to be tackled in the budget. The education highlights in the Assembly’s budget, released Wednesday, did not mention charter schools.

Silver told reporters in Albany on Thursday that he was open to giving charter schools access to pre-K funds but criticized Moskowitz’s wealthy charter school allies, who have organized an aggressive public relations campaign against de Blasio.

But the Senate’s co-leaders, Jeff Klein of the Independent Democratic Conference and Republican Dean Skelos, are giving de Blasio at least one thing to be happy about. Their budget includes $540 million in state funds, without a new income tax, for New York City to expand its prekindergarten and after-school programs.

De Blasio’s top priority has been to secure funding for those education programs with a tax increase, but he responded favorably to the budget agreement.

“Under Conference Leaders Klein and Skelos, 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.

According to the Senate’s budget resolution, charter schools would have access to the pre-K funds, something that de Blasio has said he is open to.

De Blasio is unlikely to be as pleased with the rest of the Senate’s charter school legislation, which would drastically weaken his power over the city’s charter sector, currently 183 schools strong.

One part of the plan says that charter schools must give consent to any building utilization changes affecting them, retroactive to the beginning of this year, effectively annulling the Success reversals handed down by de Blasio last month.

The proposal is also meant to create incentives for de Blasio to continue charter school co-locations. Legislation would require districts to pay for private facility costs for new charter schools if space can’t be found in public buildings. Funds would be based on a percentage of total public funds that the schools receive.

For New York’s roughly 45,000 charter school students currently in private space, the state would cover a portion of the facilities costs, which include rent, maintenance staff, and building utilities. These schools would gain access to the same per-pupil building aid that district schools currently receive from the state. 

In addition, the state would revise the per-pupil funding formula through which charter schools receive their funds. The tweak would gradually boost per-pupil aid by a total of $1,000 over two years.

Finally, another part of the plan would allow some of the 70 charter schools currently authorized under the city education department to opt out of the arrangement and partner up with the state’s two other authorizers, the SUNY Charter School Institute and the state Board of Regents. The city lost its power to authorize new schools in 2009, but has continued to re-authorize existing schools, to mixed reviews.

The entire package would need the Assembly’s approval, making it unlikely that all of the proposals will ultimately become law. An Assembly spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.