Stuck between two party bosses and a union that boosted him, the city’s public advocate has made a best-of-both-worlds choice on the Race to the Top.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio endorsed raising the state cap on charter schools today, but he stopped short of arguing the cap should be eliminated altogether, as Governor David Paterson has done and the Obama administration has encouraged. De Blasio also amended his endorsement with a list of tweaks he’d like to see in charter school law, including many that resemble recommendations the union made last week.

Like many other local politicians who favor raising the cap, de Blasio gave no other reason for his support other than that raising the cap will boost the state’s Race to the Top application. “I strongly support raising the cap on charter schools and giving New York State the best possible opportunity to compete for much needed federal education funding,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio’s letter, which was co-signed by a majority of City Council members, did not specify how high he wants the cap lifted.

The governor has charged state lawmakers with passing a bill to raise or eliminate the cap on charter schools before next Tuesday’s Race to the Top application deadline. It’s still unclear whether the legislature will make that deadline, though legislators spent yesterday conferencing on the issue.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has kept quiet about his support for the cap lift. Yesterday he told reporters that the Assembly was “trying to put together a proposal that will make New York eligible for money,” his most elaborate comment on the issue to date.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly supports lifting the cap. Most top city Democrats, including Comptroller John Liu, have been cooler to charter schools.

Here’s the full text of de Blasio’s statement and accompanying letter:

STATEMENT FROM PUBLIC ADVOCATE
BILL DE BLASIO ON EXPANDING CHARTER SCHOOL SYSTEM

“I strongly support raising the cap on charter schools and giving New York State the best
possible opportunity to compete for much needed federal education funding.  I have
submitted the following letter to Governor Paterson and the State Legislature asking them
to adopt new measures that build upon the successes in our charter school system by
increasing efficiency, transparency, and accessibility. The proposed measures, which are
endorsed by a majority of the members of the City Council, are designed to help make
our expanding charter school system more equitable to all New Yorkers.”

January 13, 2010

Dear Governor Paterson, Members of the Senate, and Members of the Assembly:

The Federal “Race to the Top” funding presents the City and State with a unique
opportunity to examine the legacy and plan for the future of New York’s charter schools
and, more generally, the public education system.  As you consider changes to the State’s
charter law in order to qualify for the Federal “Race to the Top” funding, I recommend
that any reforms should address three fundamental principles: (1) ensure fairness and
equity between public and charter schools; (2) establish greater accountability and
transparency about charter school operations; and, most importantly, (3) guarantee that a
quality education is available to all students.

In order to realize charter schools’ full potential, and share that effect with the larger
educational system, we should address the relationship between traditional public schools
and charter schools. This means adopting school siting policies that do not permit
disparate educational settings.  For example, one of the goals of the Contract for
Excellence was to reduce class sizes, which has not been fully realized in New York City.
Accordingly, there may be instances where a traditional school has higher class sizes than
a charter school that gets housed in the same school building.  Reform proposals should
address this issue to eliminate any actual or perceived inequalities in funding and the
system.

Parents in charter schools should also have the same opportunities for involvement as
parents in our traditional public schools. Parents can be powerful allies to teachers and
principals by providing support to students to be motivated about their education.  It is
important that charter schools engage their parent base by establishing an independent
parents association or parent teacher association.  Allowing parents to fully and
meaningfully participate in educational decisions at charter schools will help lead to
increased educational outcomes and create allies in educating students.

Charter schools must also be more accountable and transparent in their operations and
management.  This would allow educators, and parents, to learn from the best practices in
the most successful charter schools, which can be used to improve educational outcomes
throughout the system. In order to accomplish this, I recommend that the state law should
empower the state and local comptroller to conduct regular audits of charter schools –
similar to the recent amendments to the education law under the 2009 mayoral control

reauthorization legislation.  These reforms will allow government and the public to more
effectively measure charter school progress, as well as determine areas for improvement.

Similarly, charter schools must be more transparent by allowing the public to utilize the
tools available through the State’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain more
comprehensive information about charter school operations.  Further, charter school
officers and employees should be subject to the same financial disclosure and conflict of
interest requirements as traditional public school employees.  These accountability and
transparency guidelines will ease the ability for state and local officials, as well as the
public, to ensure that charter schools are providing students with the additional learning
opportunities that they were designed to foster and stimulate, as well as judge that they
are doing so in a fair and equitable manner.

Charter schools have the potential to be breeding grounds for innovations that could lead
to improvements in the traditional education system.  It is important that charter schools
achieve this while operating equitably and fairly toward all students, including and
especially the neediest students -English Language Learners, children living in poverty,
such as those eligible for free lunch, and special education and homeless students. The
lack of equity, accountability, and transparency in some schools has made it difficult to
ensure that the system is providing a quality education to all students instead of just some
smaller segment of the student body. Any reform in the laws governing charter schools
should provide meaningful and consistent oversight to ensure that charter schools comply
with these requirements. Additionally, the State Education Department should address
this issue by taking steps to improve the existing charter school lottery process. This will
help to ensure that students, regardless of their academic or personal needs, have access
to charter schools and the opportunities they present.

When taken together, I believe that these recommendations will ensure that charter
schools are more efficient, accountable, and transparent, and will allow educators and
administrators to marry the best aspects of the charter school system with those of the
traditional public school system.  This will also ensure that the school system as a whole
achieves its most important goal — providing equal educational opportunities to all of its
students.

Thank you in advance for your consideration and your anticipated prompt response to
this matter.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me or my Policy
Director, DeNora Getachew, at 212-669-7200.

Sincerely,

Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate for the City of New York
Gale A. Brewer, 6th Council District
Fernando Cabrera, 14th Council District
Margaret Chin, 1st Council District
Leroy G. Comrie, Jr., 27th Council District
Elizabeth Crowley, 30th Council District
Erik Martin Dilan, 37 Council District
Daniel Dromm, 25th Council District
Mathieu Eugene, 40th Council District
Julissa Ferreras, 21st Council District
Helen D. Foster, 16th Council District
Vincent J. Gentile, 43rd Council District
Letitia James, 35th Council District
Karen Koslowitz, 29th Council District
Bradford Lander, 39th Council District
Jessica S. Lappin, 5th Council District
Stephen Levin, 33rd Council District
Melissa Mark-Viverito, 8th Council District
Rosie Mendez, 2nd Council District
Annabel Palma, 18th Council District
Domenic M. Recchia, Jr., 47th Council District
Diana Reyna, 34th Council District
Joel Rivera, 15th Council District
James Sanders, Jr., 31st Council District
Larry B. Seabrook, 12th Council District
James Vacca, 13th Council District
Jumaane Williams, 45th Council District

Cc: Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg, New York City Mayor
Chancellor Joel Klein, New York City Department of Education