The Bronx factor: What Speaker Carl Heastie’s rise means for education

He supports charter schools, but deplores the co-location policy that’s allowed them to flourish in New York City. He voted for mayoral control in 2002, then reversed himself seven years later. And he’s said public schools need a big increase in funding while also sponsoring a bill that would direct funds toward private-school seats.

Meet Carl Heastie, the new speaker of the New York State Assembly.

The northeast Bronx legislator, elected to the assembly’s top position by his peers this week, is entering the fray at a critical moment for public education. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he wants to make dramatic changes to laws governing teacher tenure, evaluations, and the number of charter schools allowed to open across the state in exchange for additional education funding. As speaker, Heastie will be able to decide what bills get considered and negotiate the details of the state budget, which sends more than $8 billion to New York City schools annually.

But Heastie’s record on education is sparse and, at times, conflicting. As the teachers unions, charter-school advocates, and the rest of Albany’s power brokers look for a new ally, here are five things to know about the speaker.

1. He’s been a muted voice on education.

Heastie’s predecessor, Sheldon Silver, was a staunch ally of the teachers unions, which have been aggressively organizing against Cuomo’s education plans.

But despite his more than 14 years as a public official, Heastie’s views on education are murky and his legislative record on education issues is minimal. (That’s not atypical in the Assembly, where most issues are negotiated in a package behind closed doors.) On most hot-button issues, he’s said little.

“He’s a supporter of all public schools,” a spokesman said when asked for his position on last year’s charter-school funding debate. He did not make Heastie available for an interview.

Teachers and principals who work in the northeast Bronx schools say that Heastie represents say he’s been a responsive and visible presence, batting away co-location proposals they opposed, speaking at graduation ceremonies, and even being a regular visitor to one school’s student council meetings. He touts his role in securing construction funds to build two new schools in his district on his Assembly website.

Despite his obscurity outside of the Bronx, Heastie’s rise has excited some who believe the borough’s schools have been neglected for decades.

“Bronx is in the house!” offered Betty Rosa, a former superintendent of Bronx schools who now represents the borough on the Board of Regents.

2. He’s supported policies the union cares about.

Under Silver’s leadership, the Assembly remained closely allied with the city and state teachers unions. Reducing class sizes and school overcrowding were top priorities for Silver, and the unions counted on him to scuttle or amend legislative proposals they opposed.

Heastie, too, has said overcrowding is an issue and occasionally spoken out about a need for the state to more adequately fund low-income schools, a perennial issue for the unions and other advocates.

“Resources alone doesn’t teach children, but it goes a long way,” Heastie said in 2012 at a press conference organized by Alliance for Quality Education.

City teachers union chief Michael Mulgrew said that he is counting on Heastie to continue pushing Cuomo to meet the state’s court-decided funding targets for city schools.

“I think he understands, as an assemblyman from the city and from his section of the Bronx, that the idea that the state hasn’t met its obligation constitutionally is something he would probably be interested in,” Mulgrew said.

Heastie also kept Queens Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, an ally of Silver’s and longtime proponent of increased school funding, as chair of the education committee.

3. He’s broken the traditional mold for an Assembly Democrat.

The lone charter school in Assembly District 83 never had to worry about its representative having its back.

That’s the impression school leader Kevin Brennan left with last year after he showed up at the Albany office of Assemblyman Carl Heastie. Brennan, who runs the Bronx Charter School for Better Learning, had wanted to know whether Heastie would support some controversial changes to the charter-school law that would help his school get free space.

“Why even bother to come up here?” Heastie told him, Brennan recalled. “You know I already support you.”

But he also had a hand in scuttling a proposed charter school co-location at J.H.S. 144 in 2013, according to a staff member at the district school. “I’ve always had problems with charter schools co-located in public schools,” Heastie told the Daily News this week.

Meanwhile, the charter sector has tried to make inroads in the Assembly. Last fall, the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee received a total of $40,000 in donations from Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz’s political action committee and Public Prep Chairman Bryan Lawrence, filings show.

Kyle Rosenkrans, CEO of the Northeast Charter Schools Network, described Heastie’s appointment as a new opening.

“I think it’s an opportunity to forge a new relationship and a more collaborative one between the Assembly and charters all over the state, frankly,” Rosenkrans said.

In 2009, Heastie also broke from his conference and voted against renewing mayoral control of New York City schools, which a spokesman attributed to concerns about the independence of the Panel for Educational Policy.

Heastie also co-sponsored the Education Investment Tax Credit bill, which would direct some taxpayer dollars toward private-school seats. The bill incentivizes donations to private school scholarship funds as well as foundations that support public education, a proposal that the New York State United Teachers has likened to a “backdoor voucher proposal.”

His support for the tax credit likely reflects the middle-class nature of Heastie’s district, which has several Catholic schools that would benefit. Heastie also supported changes to the charter-school law last year that guaranteed facilities funding to new or expanding schools. (The Bronx has the second-most charter schools of the city’s boroughs, with 52.)

4. His ascent could raise the profile of the Bronx’s school struggles.

The Bronx is the borough with the highest number of English language learners with disabilities — 10,000 — and the highest concentration of students who require language services for more than six years, according to city figures. In the Bronx, 15.5 percent of third-through-eighth graders were proficient in reading last year, compared to 28 percent citywide, and math proficiency stood at 20 percent, compared to 34 percent citywide.

“I feel that I personally will have a person who will understand the plight of the children in the Bronx,” Regents member Rosa said.

But to some Bronx-based advocates, Heastie’s relative quiet on larger issues has been a disappointment, especially since the borough’s schools are considered the neediest in the city.

Ocynthia Williams, a parent organizer in the Bronx for more than two decades, said public schools are rarely a priority for the borough’s politicians.

“From my experience with Carl Heastie and the Bronx machine, we’ve stayed in the same predicament for a very long time when it comes to schools,” said Williams. “They’re not getting better and I’m not really seeing them fighting to make them better and it’s just business as usual.”

5. He knows his way around a school.

Interviews with teachers and principals whose schools are in Heastie’s district offer a picture of a representative who excels at constituent services. He visits schools regularly and shows up to speak at graduations, they said, describing him in the same way that his political colleagues have in recent weeks: an unassuming presence who doesn’t appear to have staked out strong political positions.

“I don’t think you’re going to hear him yelling and screaming at people,” said Andrew Turay, the former principal of now-shuttered Evander Childs High School, where Heastie has spoken. (After Evander closed in 2008, Turay founded one of the new small high schools that opened in the building.)

Linda Resnick, a teacher and coordinator of student activities at Evander Childs before it closed, said Heastie would often attend the school’s student council meetings. At the time, Heastie was still in graduate school at Baruch College, earning his accounting degree while starting his political career.

“He made the effort to come in to talk about leadership and responsibility,” Resnick recalled.

Correction: A previous version mislabeled the host of a 2012 press conference on school funding where Heastie spoke. It’s the Alliance for Quality Education, not the New York State United Teachers.