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Another victim of the Albany meltdown: charter school supporters

The last few days have been a roller coaster for New York’s charter school advocates.

Gov. David Paterson proclaimed Monday “SUNY Charter Schools Day.” That afternoon, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced he would favor charter-friendly states in doling out stimulus funds. And later that day, charter groups saw their biggest Democratic supporter, Sen. Malcolm Smith, lose control of the state senate to a Republican coup.

But advocates are focusing on the friendly words they’re hearing at the national level.

Smith “was a great advocate and still is,” said Peter Murphy, a charter school lobbyist. “But we have a number of supporters in the Senate from both sides of the aisle. He was never alone on the issue.”

Charter school supporters greeted Smith’s ascent to the state’s top leadership position with enthusiasm last year, but worried that Smith, the founder of two charter schools, would drop the issue when it became inconvenient.

Smith founded two charter schools and this year he engineered a relief fund to protect the schools from an unexpected budget.

James Merriman, CEO of the Center for Charter School Excellence, suggested that the power flip won’t affect support for charter schools. “This is an issue that has thankfully transcended narrow party politics,” he said, adding that charters have gained support “from the president on down” and do not need to rely on Smith for their bills’ survival.

Charter advocates did say the instability is likely to stall their lobbying efforts.

One bill they are pushing would change the time period during which charter schools are judged. Currently, schools are scrutinized five years after receiving their charter, but groups want to move the start date to when students actually enroll. Schools often receive their charters a year before opening for business.

Another bill would give admission preference to the children of charter school teachers. Aimed at teachers, the bill is thought of as a recruitment tool.

At an event celebrating the 10-year anniversary of SUNY Charter Schools Institute on Monday, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nelson Smith, heralded a new day for charter schools. “Nationally, we are about to see, I think, lift off in the charter school movement,” he said.

Those working on the movement in New York are more cautious. “We’re all sort of catching up on how this is settling out,” Murphy said. “We’ll work with whomever we need to work with.”