As schools begin morphing into polling sites in advance of Tuesday’s election, voters’ decisions could have big implications for classrooms across New York.
Since 2010, Republicans have retained control of the state Senate, shaping policy on hot-button education issues ranging from charter schools to school funding.
Senate Republicans have historically championed school choice, and pushed for more conservative levels of school spending. They have also repeatedly threatened to withhold approval of mayoral control of New York City schools in a tug-of-war with the Democrat-dominated Assembly, which has typically fought for larger school funding increases and defended city interests.
And while nothing is certain until all the votes are tallied, observers say Democrats — currently just one seat shy of a majority — have a strong chance of taking the Senate. In one sign of the changing political winds, half a dozen Democrats who voted with Republicans on many key issues, including charter schools, lost their primaries in September.
“It’s more likely than not we’ll see a Democratic majority,” said Julie Marlette, the government relations director for the New York State School Boards Association.
Still, it’s difficult to predict exactly which issues a new majority may prioritize — or even how large that majority could be. Some issues, like the debate over the city’s specialized high schools, aren’t neatly organized along party lines. Moreover, many of the Senate races have not made education issues a hallmark. And new political faces don’t have extensive track records to scour for clues.
Any legislation will be subject to negotiations with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has his own set of legislative priorities. In the past, Cuomo has supported charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores but the governor has backed away from some of those issues, and it’s unclear how strongly he will lobby for them.
But a Democrat-controlled senate could still have a big effect on perennial education battles, and in an email blast, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza urged students and their parents to vote. Here are six issues, which we also highlighted earlier this fall, to look out for.
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, which is rapidly approaching the current cap.
“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.
Charters 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 charter leaders are paid.
Those proposals had virtually no chance of garnering necessary Republican votes but could plausibly pass in a Democrat-controlled Senate. If they do, lawmakers could wind up prompting an intra-party fight with Cuomo, who has previously supported charter schools.
“The question becomes: Would those proposals ultimately be approved?” said Marlette.
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.)
Still, some within the charter sector are not optimistic. “I can’t see it being a good year,” said Steve Zimmerman, co-director of the Coalition of Community Charter School. “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.”
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 with a new funding formula, but which they argue has never been fully implemented.
They insist the state owes billions of dollars to districts. 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 and could be a leading voice on this issue if he wins on Tuesday.
“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 from within his own party to go along.
Betty Rosa, chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said in an interview in September 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 money for schools. 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.
The governor and leaders of the Senate and Assembly will “have to come together and agree on a final number,” said Marlette of the school boards association.
A more straightforward path to renewing mayoral control
Whether New York City retains mayor control of its local schools will also be on the docket next year — along with any restrictions on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s power the state legislature or Gov. Cuomo wants to impose.
Mayoral control has previously been used as a crowbar by Senate Republicans, both to bludgeon de Blasio campaigning against them and as a lever 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. 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 unwieldy at best.
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, the Assembly might simply pass the bill again with a greater chance of success.
“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 on Monday Rosa asked to extend it another year.
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, though there are still big disparities between different student populations according to data released last week.
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.
Discipline reform “was never going to see the light of day in the Senate” under Republican control, 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.
Polling locations will be open across the city from 6 a.m. to 9.m. Find your polling place here.