News 2021

Is NYC Going to Get Schooled Under a New Mayor? 

Charter schools are not the political lightning rod they have been in the past

by

When Bill de Blasio first ran for mayor in 2013, betting that a progressive, anti-Bloomberg Democrat could vault into City Hall, his education platform was clear: charter schools would not have it so easy when he won. 

“Starting January, Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place,” de Blasio fumed that year, referring to the most powerful charter school executive in the city. “Just because someone is politically connected and has a lot of money behind them, they don’t tell the public school system what to do.”

Eight years later, Eva Moskowitz is still the CEO of Success Academy, the large and highly influential charter school network, and her name is nowhere to be found in the mayoral race. Instead of left-leaning Democrats taking turns promising to block the expansion of charters, the top candidates in this primary are taking a very different tact — deference, or even praise, for the privately-run, publicly-funded schools. 

“I want to make New York City public schools great but charters offer us an opportunity,” Kathryn Garcia, who has emerged as a top Democratic contender, told the Voice. “They can be labs for experimentation.” 

The changing tune on charters is one of the more remarkable policy turnarounds in a race in which the candidates, otherwise, have proposed many progressive programs that would expand on de Blasio’s vision: free schooling before pre-K, public banking, and more affordable housing. Traditionally, many left-leaning Democrats and union activists have reviled charter schools because they don’t have to recognize teachers’ unions, unlike ordinary public schools, and can easily block the admission of students with disabilities and language difficulties. Since charter schools co-locate with public schools in the same school building, fierce battles have erupted over space and supplies. 

Defenders of charter schools argue they offer an alternative education where public schools are struggling and allow poorer, nonwhite students to enjoy the privileges of wealthier peers in private schools. Many charter schools in New York City operate in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods, where they enjoy support among parents. Students who remain in charters perform well on state exams. 

Some liberal, technocratic Democrats have embraced charters — Barack Obama was a supporter — but they remain a favorite cause of Wall Street, with billionaires in New York and nationally funding their growth. Right-wing, charter-backing billionaires, including hedge funders Kenneth Griffin and Daniel Loeb, are lavishly funding super PAC’s for two of the leading mayoral contenders, Eric Adams and Andrew Yang. 

Garcia, the New York Times-endorsed former Department of Sanitation commissioner, hasn’t yet received the same attention from the billionaire class but has vowed she’d fight to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in the five boroughs. This stance has some Democratic insiders speculating that Garcia may get assistance soon from charter school backers. 

Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has led in the polls of late, is a de Blasio ally and a pro-union Democrat who otherwise shares an affinity for charters. As recently as 2019, Adams spoke at a rally in support of Success Academy, and told the Voice he would not move to curb the expansion of charters if he enters office next year.

“I am a believer in scaling up excellence. That’s what I’m a believer in,” Adams said. “We only have a small number of good, solid charter schools. So what I’m going to do as mayor, I’m not going to engage in the ‘adult’ conversation of naming schools. I’m going to engage in the ‘children’ conversation of scaling up excellence.”

And Andrew Yang, the entrepreneur and former presidential candidate, has called himself “pro-charter” in the past and said he would, if elected, try to open charter schools that the city and state have already authorized. “I’ve committed to using the already authorized charters that right now are not being utilized. That’s the current plan,” he said. 

Through his consultant, Bradley Tusk, Yang’s affinity for charters may be even deeper. Tusk once worked for Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor who oversaw an explosion of charter schools in the five boroughs and actively encouraged their growth. 

Why are charter schools suddenly popular in this mayoral race? Theories abound. 

The young progressives and socialists hostile to charter schools were not yet in position to mount credible mayoral bids. And the end of the Donald Trump era has allowed charter-friendly Democrats to be a little less shy, since Trump’s Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, was a fierce charter school backer. 

Before Trump took office, Governor Andrew Cuomo was a vocal ally of the charter sector, but grew more muted over the last few years as the privately-run schools became associated with Trump’s education policy. 

James Merriman, the chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, agreed that Trump’s exit — as well as the loss of Republican power in New York State — has buoyed the movement’s political prospects, which were often bound up in whether conservatives could decide education policy in New York. 

Merriman also argued that, quite simply, there are now too many charter schools in the five boroughs for the unorthodox education approach to be vilified any longer. “The charter sector is bigger and harder to ignore,” Merriman said. “There wouldn’t be a single charter school around if no one wanted to go to them.” 

Before the late 1990s, charter schools didn’t exist in New York at all. When Bloomberg took power in 2002, he committed to a rapid expansion of the schools, benefiting from a Republican governor in Albany who was also interested in seeing them thrive. There were 17 charter schools the year Bloomberg entered office; there were 183, in 2013, when he left

De Blasio promised a charter crackdown, but the industry fared better than expected thanks to a far more powerful ally in Cuomo. In 2014, de Blasio’s first year, he bitterly clashed with Moskowitz, a former colleague of his in the City Council, when he rejected co-locations for three Success Academy schools that Bloomberg had rubberstamped. 

Moskowitz, along with the private equity-backed charter lobby group Families for Excellent Schools, spent millions in television ads against de Blasio and staged large rallies with parents, schoolchildren, and politicians. Cuomo, meanwhile, would engineer a new law unlike any other in America: for the first time, the city government would have to pay the rent of all charter schools or find them free space in available buildings. 

The battle wounded de Blasio, and he never quite took on the charter sector, head-on, again. The law remains on the books and has not been repealed in Albany, even with progressive Democrats in power. Under de Blasio, charters have enjoyed steady growth: there are now 290, which is the current state-mandated cap. Cuomo, the charter industry, and Garcia all want to see this cap raised. 

Even progressives in the mayoral race are no longer speaking in pointed terms about charter schools. One of them, Dianne Morales, founded a charter school herself. 

Maya Wiley, who has been endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, refused to state outright she backed ending the state law requiring New York City to pay the rent of all charters. “Every last kid is our kid, period. Let’s just start there,” Wiley said. “We know there are many things we have to fix about how we’re doing space in this city. We also have to make sure we’re not overpaying.”

For the Department of Education, the rent requirement has led to escalating costs. Of the DOE’s roughly $28 billion budget, more than $2.4 billion is spent now on operating aid for charters. New York City, thanks in part to Cuomo’s hatred of de Blasio, is the only district in the state that does not receive state dollars as reimbursement as city payments to charters increase. These numbers are expected to grow as charter schools throughout the city increase their enrollments in the coming years. 

The United Federation of Teachers, the chief antagonist of the charter industry, is backing Scott Stringer, a charter critic in the mold of de Blasio, for mayor. But Stringer, besieged by a sexual assault scandal, has not been able to command any kind of polling lead in the race. When asked about the current popularity of charter schools in the Democratic primary, Mike Mulgrew, the current president of the UFT, had a simpler theory: money. “The Garcia campaign was almost broke. Yang and Adams, this was the easiest way to raise money,” Mulgrew said. “This is about some really unscrupulous people donating and trying to get control of City Hall once again.”     ❖

Highlights