News & Politics

Eric Schneiderman, Too Beholden to Teachers’ Union to Be Attorney General?

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Eric Schneiderman, the Manhattan state senator running for Attorney General, was one of 12 Democrats who voted against the charter school bill that passed 45 to 15 on Monday.

Ironically, though a bill authorizing new charter schools appears irrelevant to the AG race, this one represents a rare opportunity to see how Schneiderman, the only candidate for statewide office to vote on the bill, grapples with an unambiguous choice between special interest and merit. Schneiderman has so far sided with the teachers union, which has contributed $47,700 to his senate campaigns over the years (his AG committee hasn’t filed a report yet), at the expense of schools that work and $700 million in federal funding tied to the charter school bill. That makes it hard to see how he can be counted on to be an AG in the tradition of Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, both of whom pushed public interest cases at the expense of their own narrow political interests.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Voice, Schneiderman could not name another time he’d voted against a bill that was backed, like this one, by Senate Democratic chair John Sampson. As Codes Committee chair and Deputy Majority Leader, Schneiderman is very much a part of Sampson’s leadership team.

In fact, Schneiderman’s vote pits him against Governor Paterson, another close Schneiderman ally who backed the bill, as well as President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who have tied the $700 million in competitive Race to the Top funding to a willingness at the state level to implement reforms like charter schools.

New York already missed the first-round chance at this funding in January in part because the legislature failed to pass a bill like this one — lifting the state’s cap on the number of charter schools from 200 to 460. New York’s application was ranked 15th of the 16 state finalists by the feds.

Despite the failure of the January bid, Schneiderman is perfectly satisfied to let Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, rather than his own leader Sampson, design a final cap-lift bill that he believes will pass before the June 1 second-round deadline. Silver, a teachers’ union pet, blocked the first attempt to put together a Race to the Top application that could win, partly by refusing to meet Obama’s goals for charters, most of which opt out of the union contract. “I believe something will happen,” says Schneiderman, who offered no reason why he’s so confident of Silver this time that he opposed a bill that may turn out to be his only chance to vote for charters.

Schneiderman and Silver have a laundry list of “reforms” that aren’t in Sampson’s bill, but that the UFT is still demanding before it will allow the lifting of the cap. The six-term senator talks, for example, about the need to give the comptroller the right to audit charters though the state’s highest court ruled unanimously last June that the comptroller couldn’t audit these independent, mostly nonprofit, schools, saying they were already “subject to oversight” at four other levels and that “accountability to the public is thus secured.”

He expressed the fear that charters, which often occupy public school buildings, might “displace schools that could become good,” an odd way of phrasing his opposition to attempts by the Bloomberg administration to place charters in failing traditional schools. Silver forced a series of union-sponsored changes restricting charter location decisions into last year’s mayoral control bill, and Schneiderman could not be specific about what new ones he thought were necessary.

Schneiderman also returned to the well-worn argument that charters, whose students are chosen by lottery, have fewer special needs and English Language Learner (ELL) pupils than traditional schools. He and Sampson appeared in January at a press conference with the UFT announcing the release of a study making precisely that point. So Sampson got charter advocates to agree to a requirement in the new bill that grants preferences to these special-need kids and requires that charters admit the same percent of these kids as the traditional schools in the same district.

Now, Schneiderman contends that charters may segregate special-needs students in separate facilities and he wants to bar that, though tens of thousands of these kids are routinely placed in such facilities by district administrators. “We have a new program,” he explains, justifying applying a mandate to charters that isn’t applied to district schools. “We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

If these arguments sounds like shallow excuses to oppose schools that regularly outscore traditional schools in the city by 15 to 20 points, consider the real reason.

The union gave Schneiderman $5,000 in the final weeks of 2009 alone. He won’t have to disclose any further contributions until July. He needs to get 25 percent at the state Democratic convention in late May to qualify to appear on the primary ballot, and the union can help him do that. If he fails at that, the statewide teacher organization could help him gather petitions. They have effective phone banks and field operations.

Also, consider the real costs.

Mayor Bloomberg just announced the possible layoffs of thousands of city teachers. Yet, by foot-dragging a second time on charters and other reforms, Schneiderman and the union are stiff-arming Race to the Top funding that would create new job opportunities for soon-to-be-laid-off teachers. City and state education officials told the Voice the obvious — teachers will be needed to staff the innovative programs subsidized for four years under this new federal funding stream.

The UFT apparently considers its hostility to charters more important than finding jobs for its own laid-off members, and Schneiderman ostensibly agrees. In fact, Schneiderman even takes a position on which teachers should be laid off that’s as synchronized with the union’s as his charter position, and as transparently detrimental to kids. When the Times did a story in late April about a Bloomberg-backed bill in Albany to give the Department of Education new power to waive seniority rules and lay off teachers based on performance, Schneiderman said the bill “wasn’t just dead on arrival, it was dead before it was put in the mail.”

If seniority is the only measure used to determine layoffs, as is now required, many of the young and energetic teachers hired since 2007 will be fired, and teachers sidelined in the rubber rooms for years because no principal wanted them will hold onto jobs on the basis of the years they spent on the payroll but out of classrooms.

Schneiderman has other redeeming social value, but his resistance to charters that could help the state qualify for vital funding raises disturbing questions about his ability to stand up to the interests, from Albany to Wall Street, that buffet the attorney general’s office.

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