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Imagining a world without Paterson, charter supporters panic

Among the competitors, oglers, and voyeurs obsessively tracking the Governor David Paterson rumor mill is another, slightly unexpected group: charter school supporters.

These principals, financial backers, and activists see the governor’s crisis as just the latest in a series of disappointing Albany-based developments for their movement — all of which have them concerned that their once-solid political support is wearing thin.

The air of anxiety can be traced back to last summer’s State Senate power struggle, in which the Republicans who had supported them for years regained and then lost control. When the dust finally settled, the one Democrat who seemed to be on their side, Senate President Malcolm Smith, had lost power. The effects of that change became clear last month when the Senate nearly passed a bill charter supporters said would kill the schools’ growth.

Throughout that drama, the one elected official on whom charter school supporters hung their hopes was Paterson, the governor they once welcomed as the “Education Guv.” Faced with the prospect of a bill pushed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson that would have restricted how and where charter schools are opened, many advocates assumed that in a worst case scenario Paterson would veto the bill.

Now, the possibility that Paterson could resign (however unfounded) or lose re-election (much more probable) has left supporters unsettled. It doesn’t help matters that one of their biggest supporters in the Senate, Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., is also one of the body’s more eccentric members.

Their main concern is that the Senate Democrats who oppose them will find the political will to pass the Silver bill. This would make the Board of Regents the sole charter authorizer, removing the SUNY Charter Institute — known for having the toughest standards and a national reputation — from the picture. Should the bill become law, district school parents would have to approve any charter school that wanted to move into their building and charters could only open through an RFP process.

One big question is where State Attorney General and undercover-gubernatorial-candidate Andrew Cuomo stands on the issue.

During the Race to the Top debacle, Cuomo was asked whether he would support Paterson’s call to increase the number of charter schools in the state. The attorney general responded to the question as he does to most of its kind: as the state’s chief lawyer, he can’t take positions on issues he may have to litigate.

Charter school supporters have responded to Cuomo’s silence by refusing to pick sides.

Democrats for Education Reform, the lobbying group whose political fund-raising often challenges efforts of local teachers unions, donated $10,000 to Paterson. The political action committee’s contribution was dated January 11, three days after Paterson announced his proposal to abolish the cap on charter schools in New York.

Joe Williams, DFER’s executive director, said that the donation should not be read as a line in the sand. “We’ve had a long-standing relationships with Governor Paterson, and a lot of our supporters have supported the attorney general,” he said.

One charter school leader who asked to remain anonymous put on a brave face, but only for the long-run.”In the 2 to 4 year time frame we’ll have more political allies than we have now and there’ll be a new administration,” he said. “But there’s a short term period right now that is fear-inducing.”

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