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Taking the same road to Albany, education lobbying events on divergent paths

The state’s education-policy debates will reach a crescendo in Albany today.

If you believe organizers of two large events planned on Wednesday, nearly 10,000 teachers, parents, students and advocates will converge on the state capital hoping to influence lawmakers before they get serious about negotiating the upcoming year’s budget. They’re lobbying with the same goal in mind — to push policies that will improve public education — but what they’re asking for couldn’t look more different.

Most of that crowd, about 8,000 people, will attend an outdoor rally organized by the advocacy group Families for Excellent Schools. Featuring a psychedelic soul singer and an all-time great basketball star, the rally’s message will be the city’s entire schools system is in need of dramatic reform. Meanwhile, a smaller and equally passionate group of teachers and union leaders will be inside, working to convince lawmakers that the real problem is a multi-billion dollar funding deficit crippling low-income schools.

Here are four things to know about Wednesday’s festivities.

1. The dueling efforts offer a comparison in political might.

Only a few years ago, the city teachers union was considered New York’s preeminent powerhouse in Albany when it came to political lobbying. The charter school sector’s lobbying efforts, meanwhile, were comparably understated and less influential.

Charter schools didn’t have much to complain about under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But in response to the changing electoral tides, a constellation of charter school operators, well-heeled board members, and advocates organized into two groups, Families for Excellent Schools and StudentsFirstNY, and turned their attention to Albany.

It wasn’t clear how much ground they had gained until last year’s rally, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s most powerful Democrat, appeared and publicly embraced their movement. Within weeks, charter schools received long-coveted access to taxpayer-funded facilities. More recently,  the union lost its top ally in the legislature, former Speaker Sheldon Silver, and his replacement, Carl Heastie, is still untested.

Now, both sides are in Albany on the same day, but it’s the union appears to be in a weaker position.

2. Both sides have plenty at stake.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education-packed budget proposal would toughen teacher tenure rules and increase the state’s role in evaluations. He wants to raise the state’s charter school cap by 100 schools, put $100 million toward a tax credit that would create private school seats, and establish a state-takeover model that could affect teachers working in more than 90 of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

The charter school advocacy groups support most of his agenda, but they’re particularly focused on getting across the point that too many schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, are failing. They’re particularly excited about Cuomo’s plan for struggling schools, which would give the state the option to give them over to outside groups, including charter school organizations.

But charter schools aren’t uniformly thrilled with Cuomo’s proposals. He wants to require all charter schools to set aside seats in their admissions lotteries specifically for low-income students, and he is proposing only a modest increase in per-pupil funding — $75 — in a year when district schools are likely to see a bigger spike. Plus, 68 charter schools in private space remain ineligible for facilities funding, even though new or expanding schools do have access to free space or rent subsidies.

The teachers union sees so many problems with Cuomo’s agenda that they have decided not to focus on any one of his proposals. Instead, they’ve sought to portray the entire plan as hugely damaging to schools, encouraging teachers to make Cuomo himself the target of their advocacy efforts on social media and at public forums.

But the union has its own substantive requests, the first of which is to increase the amount of money allotted to low-income districts by $2.2 billion statewide. The union is also asking lawmakers to eliminate a set of property tax breaks for New York City condominiums and co-ops that would yield $900 million to hire teachers and lower class sizes.

Who gets what won’t be clear for at least another four weeks, when lawmakers must approve a budget.

3. The spectacle will include a Grammy nominee, a superstar athlete, and social media blasts.

Both the teachers union and charter-school groups are trying out a range of strategies in order to be seen and heard on Wednesday.

Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, is speaking at the Families for Excellent Schools rally, and six-time Grammy nominee Janelle Monáe will perform afterwards. State lawmakers are will also speak, though organizers would not reveal the lineup on Tuesday.

The union’s lobbying day will be less star-studded, but include plenty of access to top state lawmakers. UFT President Michael Mulgrew is planning to meet with the state’s education committee chairs Catherine Nolan, an Assembly Democrat, and John Flanagan, a Senate Republican.

And though the union won’t be able to compete with the sheer size of the Families for Excellent Schools rally, it’s trying to make up for it online. More than 1,400 people have signed up to send a pre-programmed message on Twitter or Facebook opposing Cuomo’s education proposals. Staten Island teachers will send out their messages at 7 a.m., followed by Brooklyn teachers at 10 a.m. and Queens, Bronx, and Manhattan teachers at two-hour intervals until at 4 p.m.

4. It will be a show of unity for the sometimes-divided charter school sector.

The city’s growing group of charter school leaders have divergent views on issues like enrollment and the mission of their sector, and disagreements have typically divided Success Academy and other charter management organizations from smaller networks and independent schools.

But charter schools that have distanced themselves from Success Academy-backed political rallies in the past say they support this one. That includes all 18 schools that publicly opted out of last year’s rally and sided with Mayor Bill de Blasio during a space-sharing spat with Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz.

It doesn’t mean that charter school leaders all see eye-to-eye. But the de Blasio administration’s tepid embrace of charter schools, and the City Council’s outright opposition, have had a unifying effect, many said.

Stacey Gauthier, principal of Renaissance Charter School, said she’s also been turned off by the de Blasio administration’s unwillingness to work with the members of her group, the Coalition of Community Charter Schools, despite their overtures over the past year.

“We had hoped to get more out of our dialogue with the city than we’ve gotten to date,” Gauthier said. “We’re about good schools. We’re supporting this rally because we think that’s what this rally is about.”