News & Politics

Albany’s Fixation With Controlling NYC Schools Is All About Money

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There isn’t an intellectually honest argument for not renewing mayoral control of New York City schools. This system works much better than the old system. Whatever ills can be laid at the feet of the New York public schools system today — and there are many — they are not the function of a centralized bureaucracy that the mayor must be held accountable for. A balkanized, localized school system of unruly, politicized fiefdoms — a/k/a the pre-2002 status quo — is not a place we want to be.

Yet, for another year, here we are. Thanks to the absurdity of state law, and a New York State Constitution few politicians have any courage to change, a city of eight million people can’t decide what to do with its schoolchildren without seeking permission from the state legislature. On June 30, if Albany lawmakers don’t act, mayoral control of public schools will expire. This almost happened in 2015 and 2016, because Republicans who control the state senate hate Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, for trying and failing to flip control of the chamber in 2014.

Rather than give de Blasio six- or seven-year extensions like those offered to his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, senate Republicans have enjoyed extracting concessions from their Democratic enemy. This year, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has agreed to renew de Blasio’s control of the school system for several years in exchange for allowing more charter schools in the state. The statewide cap overwhelmingly impacts New York City, because that’s where charter operators like to go. Flanagan’s bucolic Suffolk County district has no charter schools.

De Blasio and assembly Democrats, who are much more loyal to charter school–hating teachers unions, argue that the city’s Department of Education is doing fine as is, and renewing mayoral control shouldn’t be continuously tied to boosting the number of charters. And they’re right: One really has nothing to do with the other. On Monday, at a City Hall rally for mayoral control, de Blasio laid out his case as best his could, joining together labor leaders and various elected officials, including a onetime bitter rival, Scott Stringer, who spent the better part of a year plotting how to primary him.

“The message you’re hearing today — you’re hearing from business leaders, labor leaders, educators, elected officials — is mayoral control is the only system that works, and it should be continued so we can keep helping out children, no strings attached,” de Blasio said inside the City Hall rotunda. “Don’t hold mayoral control hostage. Don’t hold the future of our kids hostage. Give us mayoral control of education.”

There are now north of two hundred charter schools in New York City, many in predominately minority areas. Thanks to a change in state law engineered by Governor Andrew Cuomo, the city must pay their rent. Some achieve extraordinary results, some fail horribly, some enrich kids, some punish them brutally. Unlike full-fledged public schools — charters are publicly funded but can circumvent union rules — they don’t have to take every student. English language learners and special-needs children don’t always impact their test scores.

Wealthy people who don’t like teachers unions also favor charter schools. These wealthy people, including hedge funder Daniel Loeb, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, and GOP mega donor Paul Singer, have spent millions on efforts to expand charters in New York. These wealthy people also happen to lavishly fund senate Republicans. Bloomberg, another billionaire who supported charters, was a prolific senate Republican patron. Now that he’s a private citizen, he’s spending his money elsewhere.

A senate Republican spokesman told me that his conference cares so much about New York City schoolchildren getting more charter schools because current wait lists are so long. He didn’t acknowledge that it’s this cash from charter school interests that helps keep the Republicans’ razor-thin majority in the senate alive. These same interests are very generous to the Independent Democratic Conference, an eight-member breakaway group that maintains the GOP majority through a power-sharing alliance. Their leader, State Senator Jeff Klein, is a proud charter schools backer, and the IDC’s housekeeping account took $150,000 from charter interests — Loeb included — in the last campaign cycle.

What remains unclear is what Flanagan’s vision really is for New York City schools. His defenders say that, as a senate education committee chair prior to assuming his leadership role, he understands the issue well. But what is his end game? Enough charter schools to subsume public schools? A city education system that will resemble the one in New Orleans? Beyond doing the bidding of reliable donors, he never says much.

Lost in all this controversy, of course, is Cuomo. The governor has made it his mission to stymie de Blasio whenever possible and has no interest in applying his considerable leverage on the senate to make it pass an extension of mayoral control without any preconditions. He would rather let de Blasio twist in the wind or even have to own the dissolution of the Department of Education and the ensuing chaos. The governor understands politics as well as anyone: When a new level of dysfunction overtakes the city schools system, most people will still blame the mayor, not a governor who rarely comes out in public to talk to actual voters, let alone journalists. If Cuomo can avoid being the face of New York City’s mass transit collapse, so too can he dodge the many education bullets to come.

A deal may be hashed out at the last possible moment. Perhaps de Blasio will understand his logic is no match for spiteful Republicans, billionaire charter school boosters, and Cuomo’s intransigence, and the charter cap will get boosted. Maybe we’ll get a clean one-year extension and do this dance all over again next year.

What could break this cycle for good is chasing the senate Republicans from power. De Blasio is likely to be mayor for another four years and a Democrat, barring unforeseen circumstances, will probably follow him. Like any Democrat, he or she will hold liberal views on education that are anathema to a conference based in the suburbs and drunk on charter school money. A Democratic state senate doesn’t promise harmony or perfection, but it will offer a reality much more friendly to New York City. If the IDC cared about any of this, it would help form a Democratic majority as soon as possible, and work to strengthen it in next year’s elections. But you shouldn’t hold your breath.