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Avella compromises on charter schools to sign off on Senate budget bill

Last January, State Sen. Tony Avella was talking to a reporter in the Senate lobby about a bill he sponsored that sought a moratorium on school closures and co-locations in New York City. The bill had broad legislative support from Democrats, but it needed a few more Senate votes to pass.

“We should see if we can get the IDC into becoming  interested in this,” Avella said, referring to the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democrats whose formation after the 2012 elections kept Republicans in power. If the IDC Democrats supported the moratorium bill, or better yet they caucused with their party colleagues, its chances of passing would dramatically improve.

Now, a year later, Avella is in a very different position. Last month, the Queens lawmaker defected from the Democratic conference to join the IDC, in a move seen as hurting Democrats’ chances of taking over the Senate.

And when the IDC Democrats signed on to a budget resolution this week that supports, among other education policies, charter school co-locations, Avella vaulted into a new and challenging position. In order to claim a budget win, Avella could have to compromise on some long-held positions.

That includes a belief that charter schools are not an essential sector of education. Back in 2009, when he was mulling a run for New York City mayor, he told a group convened by the leftwing Working Families Party that the city wouldn’t need charter schools if it focused more of its attention on district schools.

“We should make sure that every school has updated equipment, the best computers, the best teachers, and I would make sure that we do that,” Avella sad at the time. “And eventually, you do that, charter schools will just go away.”

So far, Avella said he hasn’t changed his views on charter schools or co-locations. In a statement, he said he had acceded to the charter school provisions of the Senate budget bill because doing so would increase the likelihood that New York City district schools would get extra funding.

“I am voting for this resolution because of the more than half a billion dollars in new funding it asks our state to deliver to non-charter New York City publics schools,” Avella said. “Any legislator stubborn enough to turn down that type of windfall for New York City students and teachers is forgetting about the families who elected them here in the first place.”

The Senate’s proposal includes a bevy of school choice legislation that would bolster more than just charter schools. In addition to giving charter schools access to state facilities aid and making it difficult for Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep charters out of public school buildings, the resolution also includes  a tax credit for donations to private school scholarships that could fund up to $125 million for new students (the credit would be split evenly so that half of donations go toward public school-related programs.

The budget framework is a starting point, seen as mostly symbolic, that will look much different than the final spending plan that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the legislature must agree on before the end of the month. Cuomo said today that the budget resolutions are mostly “political statements.”

“They’re Christmas wish lists,” Cuomo said after speaking at an event in New York City. “You just put everything on there that you want. It doesn’t matter if it adds up.”

But Cuomo also reiterated that one part of the resolution that will be taken more seriously than others is charter schools.

“Some areas are significant and I think the Senate’s language on the charter schools is one of those areas,” Cuomo said.

Avella and his IDC colleagues did not highlight the budget bill’s charter school provisions in their statement. Instead, they focused on the fact that the bill includes enough state funds to fully fund New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans for expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school programs.

“This year’s senate budget resolution puts the needs of working families first, by dedicating $540 million for Mayor de Blasio’s universal pre-k and after school program for each of the next five years,” IDC leader Jeff Klein said in a the statement.

Avella’s accommodationist approach drew fire from advocates and elected officials. Queens Democrat Daniel Dromm, who chairs the city council’s education committee, said Avella should have never joined the IDC in the first place.

“I’m disappointed that Senator Avella chose to leave the Democratic Conference and join the IDC,” Dromm said in an interview. “I really feel strong about what it means to be a Democrat and I don’t see how working with the IDC is going to produce any outcomes.”

Class Size Matters’ Leonie Haimson, part of a parent coalition that helped draw greater scrutiny to the Board of Regents election process this year, said Avella “should resign from the IDC” if he can’t “get the Senate to give up this incredibly inequitable and damaging proposal.” 

Both sides are most likely to lose at least something when the final budget gets hammered out in negotiations. But Avella knows the advantages of being in a leadership position. The Senate leadership last year left him frustrated that his closure and co-location moratorium was going nowhere.

“Well, it’s tough considering that Mike Bloomberg has donated huge amounts of money to the Republican State committee,” Avella said last year. “So it’s tough to get something like this passed even though the Republicans are, technically, in the minority.”