Charter schools, funding, and the SHSAT: What we’re watching if Democrats flip New York’s Senate

Education politics could see a shakeup in Albany soon, as Democrats have their best chance in years to take control of the State Senate.

In recent cycles, New York education policymaking has been defined by predictable splits between the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.

The Senate has championed private and charter schools, dangling approval of mayoral control of New York City in a tug-of-war with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Assembly, which has fought for larger school funding increases and defended city interests.

But with progressives defeating six incumbent Democratic senators — who broke away from their party in an unusual arrangement that gives Republicans a majority — those surprise upsets could set the stage for a bigger shift. For the first time since 2010, it is possible Democrats will control the State Senate, as long as they hold on to their seats and peel off at least one vulnerable Republican in November.

It is difficult to predict exactly how a Democrat-controlled legislature would affect specific policy details, especially since the Senate will have fewer familiar faces with long track records. And any education legislation will be subject to negotiations with Cuomo, so lawmakers’ priorities will matter. Still, a Democrat-controlled legislature could have big implications for charter schools, school funding, mayoral control, and other perennial education battlegrounds.

Here is what you can look out for if the Senate flips.

Efforts to rein in charter schools, with some limits

Senate Republicans have been stalwarts of the charter sector, helping secure increases in per-student funding and additional subsidies for renting private space. A Democrat-controlled Senate would be likely be much less favorable.

Some of the progressive Democrats campaigned explicitly on a promise to maintain the limit on the number of charter schools that can open in New York City.

“I think the cap is a very real issue,” said Bob Bellafiore, a consultant who has worked for charter schools and helped push for the state’s charter law in the 1990s. “It’s a thing to watch because of the campaign rhetoric.”

Charter advocates say they’ll continue to pressure lawmakers to raise the cap, but after pushing the issue for years, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to drum up support in a more challenging climate.

They could also face additional challenges, if Democratic majorities seek to ratchet up oversight of the sector. In 2017, Senate Democrats put forward proposals that would require charter schools to have specific enrollment targets for students with disabilities and English learners, make it more difficult to share buildings with district schools, and limit how much leaders are paid.

Those proposals had virtually no chance of garnering necessary Republican votes, but they could plausibly pass in a Democrat-controlled Senate. If they do, lawmakers could wind up in a showdown with Cuomo, who has previously supported charter schools.

“The question becomes: Would those proposals ultimately be approved?” said Julie Marlette, the governmental relations director for the New York State School Boards Association.

Less likely: any legislative efforts to increase teachers unions’ influence in charter school operations, considered a holy grail for the unions. Even with Democratic majorities, lawmakers will be hemmed in by recent federal labor rulings that classify charter schools as private, meaning that their employees would not be represented by public unions. (Charter school employees can still seek to form unions on their own.)

But no matter what happens, charter advocates are bracing for a difficult session.

“The movement writ large has fallen out of favor with progressive politics — that’s not a secret and in the Trump-DeVos era it’s only gotten worse,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter Schools. “I can’t see it being a good year.”

More pressure to increase school funding

Not every progressive Democrat who unseated an incumbent in the primary cited maintaining the charter cap as a priority. But they are all united on another issue: that the state should send more money to local districts.

Like Cynthia Nixon, the “Sex and the City” star who took on Cuomo in the primary, these politicians say the state has not fulfilled its funding obligations under Cuomo. They point to a landmark school funding lawsuit that prompted the state to come up a new funding formula, but which they argue has never fully been funded and that the state owes billions of dollars. One of the lead plaintiffs on that original lawsuit, former City Council education committee chair Robert Jackson, unseated a Democratic state senator to win the nomination in Harlem.

“Every one of the challengers ran on the demand of fully funding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for more funding, referring to the Democrats who unseated state senators who voted with Republicans.

“It’s not a slam dunk,” Easton said. “But I think it’s an atmosphere we’ve never seen in Albany before.”

A consensus among lawmakers on school funding would reshape the annual budget dance. In recent years, the Democratic Assembly has called for much more spending than Cuomo has proposed, while the Senate has previously come out somewhere in the middle. If both chambers unite in calling for more aid, Cuomo could face pressure to increase funding in the final budget.

Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said in an interview that she hopes “the combination of the Assembly and the Senate will create leverage” in the budget process, a dynamic she hopes would lead to more funding. Many of the Regents’ priorities — more support for vulnerable students, additional social services in schools, and other initiatives — require significant spending, Rosa said.

But Cuomo will still wield considerable power in the budget process, which is hammered out with the leaders of the Assembly and Senate in a process known as the “big ugly” because so many issues are negotiated at once. And he may be reluctant to dramatically boost spending, especially given the state’s budget deficit and potential economic uncertainty. He has also suggested that the level of funding is not as important as how it is spent.

“Three parties have to come together and agree on a final number,” said Marlette, of the school boards association. “That will involve the executive.”

A more straightforward path to renewing mayoral control

Next year’s legislature will have to decide, once again, whether to let New York City’s mayor control local schools — and what restrictions on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s power, if any, should be enacted.

Mayoral control has previously been used as a bludgeon by Senate Republicans, both as a punishment for de Blasio campaigning against them and as a bargaining chip to exact concessions in the budget, including on charter schools.

But Democrats have also critiqued the governance system for being too top-down — a criticism that occupied lawmakers’ energy extensively when Michael Bloomberg was mayor. As City Council education chair, Jackson was particularly strident in his calls to roll back mayoral control.

It’s possible that Jackson and the new wave of progressives could level that kind of criticism again, and mayoral control has previously been part of larger negotiations at the last minute. But they might not have an appetite for squaring off against de Blasio, especially after years of mounting consensus that returning to the previous, complicated system of local control or creating a completely new system would be undesirable.

A more likely outcome, according to the Alliance for Quality Education’s Easton, is that reauthorizing mayoral control could be easier, with de Blasio getting more than just a one- or two-year extension that lasts into his successor’s administration. Still, the issue will still be subject to negotiation and Cuomo could use it as a bargaining chip if legislators ask for a longer extension.

Teacher evaluation legislation, but potentially with a twist

During the last legislative session, the Democrat-controlled Assembly passed a bill repealing elements of an unpopular law that could eventually tie teacher evaluations to test scores — but it died in the Senate.

With a new Senate, would the Assembly simply pass the bill again with a greater chance of success? It’s possible, but that depends on each legislator’s priorities and how much pressure comes from the teachers union and parent groups critical of testing.

“It’s possible that we might see swifter action on [teacher evaluations] than we would otherwise,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

It’s also possible that lawmakers might advance a different bill with broader goals. Some of the state’s top education officials, including Rosa, the Board of Regents Chancellor, favor a slower overhaul of the teacher evaluation system with more opportunity for input from educators as opposed to an immediate legislative change. The Regents have placed a moratorium on the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests, and Rosa said in an interview that the board would likely extend it.

“It gives the new legislators an opportunity to catch their breath and weigh in,” Rosa said.

A statewide shift away from suspensions

In recent years, New York City has significantly curtailed student suspensions in favor of more “restorative” approaches, which emphasize peer mediation and less punitive responses to student misbehavior. De Blasio has also made it much more difficult to suspend the city’s youngest students.

Cathy Nolan, chairwoman of the Assembly education committee, has previously sponsored legislation that would require those types of discipline reforms across the state, but which have not gained traction.

“There was never a chance it would move” under Senate Republicans, Easton said. “I think you’ll see a push.”

Continued debate over specialized high schools

One big issue on the table this year doesn’t have a clear party line: whether New York City will be allowed to scrap the admissions test at its elite specialized high schools, which is written into state law.

De Blasio has proposed eliminating the exam to promote diversity at the hyper-segregated schools, but the issue has divided city Democrats. John Liu, a former city comptroller who defeated Tony Avella in the primary, does not support de Blasio’s plan. Current legislators, some of whom attended specialized high schools, have also spoken out against it.

The issue is so new and murky that many of candidates have not yet weighed in. And while de Blasio remains optimistic, Michael Mulgrew, the city teachers union chief who supported the proposal when it was announced and whose take counts with many Democratic lawmakers, is not.

“I don’t believe at this point in time it can pass in the next legislative session because it has been so highly politicized,” he said — before the primary election that ushered progressive Democrats onto the November ballot.