Cuomo schools De Blasio

“We will save charter schools,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) assured thousands of students and their families at a recent rally in Albany. Save them from whom, you wonder? From another Democrat, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The rift between these bull elephants of New York politics isn’t personal. Rather, it illuminates simmering tensions between the Democratic Party’s reform and “populist” camps.

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De Blasio thrilled the latter by campaigning last year against the Big Apple’s growing inequality, and vowing to tax the rich to pay for pre-school for low-income kids. Many on the Democratic left see him as just what they’ve been waiting for -- an unapologetic champion for a new politics of economic and racial justice.

When it comes to charter schools, however, de Blasio sounds more like the paleoliberals of the 1970s and 1980s, whose distaste for reforming broken public sector systems -- urban schools, welfare, public housing – did much to discredit Democrats in the voters’ eyes.

The flap began last week when the de Blasio administration withdrew permission (granted by its predecessor, Michael Bloomberg) for three charter schools to share space with schools run by the school district. The target of this eviction notice is Success Academy, a nonprofit network of charter schools, all of which are co-located with district schools. It’s run by Eva Moskowitz, a sharp-elbowed former city councilwoman who has opened 22 schools in mostly poor neighborhoods over fierce resistance from the city’s education establishment and its political allies.

De Blasio objects to co-location because he sees charters as free riders on the traditional school system. During the campaign, he said Moscowitz’s schools must “stop being tolerated, enabled, supported” by the city’s Education Department. And it’s not just space; the mayor also has shifted $210 million from a charter school expansion fund he inherited to other purposes.

De Blasio’s visceral aversion to the city’s charters is strange on several levels. First, it ignores the fact that, far from being invasive parasites on the district schools, charters are public schools too, even if they aren’t controlled by the central bureaucracy. They must take all comers (space permitting) and they receive significantly less in public money per each student ($13,527) than the district schools ($19,000). The mayor apparently believes that because charters solicit funds from private foundations and philanthropists, they aren’t truly public schools, and they are rolling in dough. Most aren’t, but in any case what’s so terrible about using private donations to improve urban schools?

Second, whereas the city provides buildings to all of its traditional schools, charters must find and pay rent on their own space. The facilities challenge, in fact, has been a major constraint on charter growth nationally. Take Washington, D.C., where nearly half the students are enrolled in charters. As a D.C. charter school authorizer, I was struck by how much time and energy school leaders spend on trying to find suitable and affordable space -- even though the city is awash with vacant school buildings.

Third and most important, many charters are giving impoverished minority students what they’ve been denied too long -- a quality education. Success Academy Harlem, one of the charters de Blasio wants to expel, had the highest-performing 5th graders in New York’s state math assessment last year. At the district school it shares space with, only five percent of the students passed the test.

So why do self-proclaimed “progressives” want to punish schools that are doing a good job of educating disadvantaged kids? The conventional answer is that they are carrying water for the adults in the traditional system -- especially teachers unions. That’s often true, but there’s another explanation: Populists have a genuine ideological bone to pick with charters, because they inject market concepts of choice and competition into public education.

Progressive education reformers are more pragmatic. What matters to them is closing achievement gaps, not preserving the centralized, one-size-fits all model for school governance. For them, the “public” nature of public education lies not in a uniform school system, but in a commitment to uniformly high standards for all students. What charters offer, reformers say, is room for innovation and diversity within public education. Above all, they offer accountability for results. When charters don’t succeed, they can and should have their charters yanked. De Blasio, on the other hand, wants a moratorium on closing failing district schools.

The progressive reform camp, fortunately, has some formidable assets: Bill Clinton, who first put charters on the national agenda two decades ago; President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan; lots of Democratic mayors, governors and legislators in the 42 states that have charter schools; and, legions of black and Hispanic parents who are demanding better schools for their kids.

Oh yes, and Andrew Cuomo, who vowed to make sure the city’s charters have “the financial capacity and physical space and government support to thrive and grow.” Thus did the governor school the new mayor in what it really means to be a progressive.

Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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