Charter schools could divide Cuomo and de Blasio

Some people swear by charter schools, some people swear at them. The whole point of the charter school movement was to challenge the public schools to do better by giving them some healthy competition. Some of the charters have succeeded and others have failed. Of course, some of the regular public schools (charters like to point out that they are public schools, too) have begun to adopt the innovations started by the charters. Some of the charters have been seen by old style not-for-profit-crats as potential personal gold mines for their executives. Those are the schools that bring disgrace to the whole charter movement.

The main bone of contention regarding charters is that they siphon precious public resources away from the regular public schools. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg and company have been tremendous supporters of the charter movement. There is no question that these schools can provide alternatives to some parents whose children would otherwise face bad educational futures. After all, rich and middle class parents can afford to send their kids to private schools and, because of educational advantages that often go with wealth, they have the potential to “test in” to some elite schools. Bloomberg and Joel Klein get a lot of credit for having invigorated the educational process but now their innovations are under a death threat.

Charter schools are not always the answer. Some people believe they are appropriate for upscale communities that already have excellent traditional public schools. Sometimes they are founded to serve someone’s ego needs, as in, “Hmmm, I have a lot of money, I haven’t got anything to do today; I think I’ll start a charter school.” Others see starting major charter networks as the basis for a run for mayor of New York City.

It is quite clear that Bill de Blasio, who is most likely going to be the new progressive mayor of New York, is not a big fan of charter schools. Some say that’s because he is in bed with the teachers union, which is concerned about the fact that the charters don’t operate with the same work rules that have been established in the regular public schools. Whatever the reason, de Blasio seems to think that the real challenge is to improve the public schools rather than developing a competitive system of charters. He has a point. If elected, he intends to compel the charters to pay rent for the space that was given to them gratis under Bloomberg’s administration. What’s more, he’s not on board when it comes to the concept of “shared space,” wherein a building is divided between a public school and a charter school. If he wins the election, I suspect many of the charters that are playing it very close to the fiscal line won’t survive.

Of course, a lot of parents of kids in the charter schools are going to be very angry when their kids’ schools are threatened. Mario Cuomo used to say, “You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.” If de Blasio really threatens the charter schools, I suspect there will be hell to pay. De Blasio will have serious opposition that he won’t want, including his governor and a lot of parents who will go to the ends of the earth to protect their kids’ charter schools.

For his part, Governor Andrew Cuomo is all for charter schools. He knows that he has a hell of a situation on his hands. Education in New York has become very political. Naturally, when de Blasio wins, there will be some contretemps between Governor Cuomo and the new progressive mayor. Charter schools may well be one of the most contentious of the issues that separate them. The new educational core curriculum will be another. Cuomo will be looking over his shoulder at de Blasio, who will have mobilized the progressive Democrats behind him.

Personally, I don’t see charters going away. As the old saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 10/22/13

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