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Arguing for mayoral control, de Blasio sparks a spat over charter school funding

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in 2014.
Kevin P. Coughlin-Office of the Governor/Flickr

As Mayor Bill de Blasio appealed to state lawmakers Tuesday to let him keep control of the city schools, he took a shot at charter schools that could hurt his case.

Without mayoral control of city schools, thousands of toddlers would be without pre-kindergarten classes and the entire system would be “fragmented and inefficient,” he said during a budget hearing in Albany.

But he also spoke out against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent proposal to increase funding for charter schools, saying it would place an unfair financial burden on the city. Since Cuomo and some Republican lawmakers view the mayoral control debate as more a referendum on de Blasio’s education policies than a governance question, and both embrace charter schools, de Blasio’s remarks could undermine his argument to them.

“We hold a basic belief that every single child in this state is equally important,” de Blasio said about the proposed boost in charter-school funding, “and we do not support initiatives that take from one group of children to give to another.”

Cuomo recently proposed ending the current freeze on the public funding New York City charter schools receive for each student. That would raise funding for the city’s charter schools one year ahead of the rest of the state’s charters, which have not seen a funding increase for five years.

De Blasio said Tuesday that lifting the freeze would cost the city over $30 million next year, and pointed out that no other municipality is being asked to pay for such an increase. He said the city would welcome state money to cover the cost, but added that he would not want the state to “take away funding from other pressing needs.”

Charter advocates were quick to criticize the mayor’s comments.

“The Mayor’s position today conflicts with his recent inclusive tone around charter schools, and that is unfortunate — though not entirely unexpected,” said James Merriman, the CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

De Blasio’s strong stance against raising per-pupil charter school funding is unlikely to please either Cuomo, who has again said he would support a three-year extension of mayoral control, or from Republican lawmakers, who are already skeptical about de Blasio’s bid.

Otherwise, the mayor’s testimony hewed closely to themes he established last year when he asked for a permanent extension of mayoral control, which had expired after a six-year stint. Legislators ultimately granted him a one-year renewal and invited him to return this year to try again.

The short extension set the stage for another debate this year over de Blasio’s education policies. Now, state lawmakers will decide whether de Blasio’s “Renewal” program for struggling schools, his vast expansion of pre-K program, and his stance on charters warrants the permanent extension of mayoral control, or at least a seven-year renewal, which de Blasio is asking for.

In making his case Tuesday, he cited the relatively smooth pre-K rollout and the city’s record-high graduation rate last year. He also gave an implicit nod to his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who first convinced legislators to give the city’s mayor authority over the nation’s largest school system, then used the power to make sweeping changes — including disempowering local school boards, overhauling admissions systems, and closing hundreds of schools. Though Bloomberg’s policy prescriptions remain controversial, graduation rates rose and corruption waned during those years.

“Over time, we’ve seen that mayoral control works,” de Blasio said.

But the governor and some lawmakers take the position that the tool of mayoral control cannot be separated from the policies of the person who wields it.

Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan’s office said in a statement this month that he plans to scrutinize de Blasio’s long-term vision for city education, especially the city’s progress at turning around underperforming schools, and dive into specific issues like allegations of grade-fixing.

“Senator Flanagan supports mayoral control for New York City schools, but not at any cost,” according to the statement from his press office.

Since the now-annual debate over mayoral control gives de Blasio’s critics in Albany a chance to publicly evaluate his policies, it’s unlikely they will grant him a long-term extension this session, said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

“Why give up a fun toy?” he said.

De Blasio and his allies say the mayor’s policy positions should not influence lawmakers’ answer to the theoretical question of who should control the city’s schools system. Others say the repeated battles over the specifics of mayoral control have become a distraction.

“This is another issue that takes away from the issues that we want to focus on if we have to go back to the table each year and debate mayoral control,” said Randi Levine, a project director at Advocates for Children.

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