Cuomo touts charter schools in surprise rally appearance, clouding de Blasio's pre-K lobby day

Gov. Andrew Cuomo repeatedly pledged to “save charter schools” in fiery remarks at a large pro-charter rally staged on the steps of the State Capitol building on Tuesday.

Cuomo took the podium a mere minutes after Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped away from center stage at his own event nearby, a rally to push Cuomo and other legislative leaders to approve of his proposed city income tax to fund expanded pre-kindergarten and after school programs. The governor’s appearance also stoked simmering criticism that the charter rally had been organized as little more than a distraction designed to undermine lobbying for the tax, which Cuomo has repeatedly said he opposes.

“We are here to day to tell you that we stand with you,” Cuomo said, whose appearance was not announced until about 90 minutes before he spoke. “You are not alone. We will save charter schools.”

The remarks were part of the latest round of a political tango playing out between Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio on key education issues this year. Already at odds over how to fund an expansion of prekindergarten programs, their ideologies clashed again last week after de Blasio nixed building space plans for three Success Academy charter schools.

Cuomo stated his clearest support yet for the state’s more than 200 charter schools, pledging to back any efforts to protect charters from being required to take money from their per-pupil budgets to pay for rent and other facilities costs. 

“I am committed to ensuring charter schools have the financial capacity to physical space and the government’s support to thrive and to grow,” he said.

Well-heeled backers of the charter sector have increasingly thrown their financial support behind Cuomo, who they have seen as their most powerful ally now that Michael Bloomberg has left office. Cuomo’s reelection bid has received nearly $800,000 from charter school board members and funders, much of which has come in the last year. Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz is among those who has given generously.

Last week, de Blasio referred to the charter school rally as a “sideshow“. Several New York City charter schools opted to sit out of the rally because they believed it would hurt their standing with the new administration.

De Blasio’s supporters echoed some of that criticism on Tuesday. Senator Liz Krueger said she didn’t believe that facilities funding for charter schools were a serious part of budget negotiations and likened the charter rally to one-half of a “dueling banjos” routine. 

“If you want to try to decrease attention to one issue,” Krueger said, “You throw another issue out there.”

Krueger was among several city and state lawmakers who attended and spoke at the pre-K rally, which was held at the Washington Armory. Around 1,000 people attended the event, although organizer estimates were higher. Many of the attendees were parents and grandparents who were members of some of the labor unions supporting de Blasio’s pre-K campaign.

Alluding to the competing education-related events taking place simultaneously, Speaker Sheldon Silver said that the focus should stay on pre-K.

“The boldness, the energy, and the compassion that this mayor has brought to the table is what makes this, up front, the story of the day,” Silver said.

While Silver and other officials said they supported de Blasio’s tax in their speeches, some of their left statements left open some notable wiggle room for how expanded pre-K could ultimately be funded. Cuomo has said he wants the state to pay the way for full-day pre-kindergarten programs, though his annual spending plan for the expansion calls for far less than the $340 million that would be collected for pre-K in de Blasio’s tax.

“I don’t care about the political baseball, or inside baseball, being played here,” Silver said. “I don’t care who takes credit when we win this fight for full-day pre-K.”

Cuomo’s four-minute remarks at the charter rally took shots at the current public education system, saying it is treated more like an government “industry” that supports special interests.

Organizers said more 11,000 people from more than 100 school attended the charter rally, which was filled with parents and students dressed in yellow shirts reading “#CHARTERSWORK” and “ALBANY: SAVE OUR SCHOOLS”. Many of the parents traveled with students from one of the 22 Success Academy Charter Schools that was closed for the day.

The decision to close schools for the day has been a controversial one with critics accusing Success CEO Eva Moskowitz of using her students as political pawns. But Success parents at the rally who traveled to Albany said that they were fine with the decision. 

“It’s a field trip of gigantic proportion,” said Gregory Staine-Pyne, whose second grade son attends Success Academy 3 in Harlem. “I’m for it one hundred and ten percent.”

Staine-Pyne said that students took math quizzes on their bus rides up. “We also had discussions about what we’re doing up here, why we’re on that bus,” he added.

Phyllis Duaston-Overton said she had “no problem” with taking her two children, a kindergartner and a seventh grader, out of their respective Success schools.

“This is the only way we could fight for our schools because they give us a good education,” said Duaston-Overton.

Cuomo and de Blasio were finally able to coordinate their schedules in the afternoon after both rallies ended when they met for about two hours. De Blasio reportedly called the meeting “productive.”