It was game, set, and match against charter school expansion in New York last week as a special session of the state legislature renewed formal mayoral control of the nation’s largest public school system on terms dictated by the bitterly anti-charter United Federation of Teachers.

The outcome marked a de facto retreat from Governor Andrew Cuomo's commitment to school quality; the unambiguous emergence of assembly speaker Carl Heastie as a power player in Albany, and a further marginalization of Mayor Bill de Blasio as an agent of influence in New York government. The mayor was permitted no role whatsoever in the debate over control of the school system and its $24 billion-plus annual budget—arguably the most stinging public humiliation visited on a New York City mayor since David Dinkins was denied reelection in 1993.

Actually, de Blasio didn’t pretend to be a part of the process—his handpicked schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, wasn’t even in the country when the legislature convened. This is no surprise, as the mayor has never made any serious effort to build the Albany alliances necessary to be a factor in the state capital.

This is in dramatic contrast to the presence of Heastie, who succeeded the corrupt and convicted Sheldon Silver as speaker in 2015. A long-time machine pol from the Bronx, Heastie had made it clear early on that if mayoral control of city schools was going to survive 2017, he would dictate the terms (no doubt with a detailed, if silent, assist from UFT president Michael Mulgrew, a powerful Albany presence in his own right).

Heastie said that there’d be no increase in the number of charter schools permitted in New York City—so, for the most part, there won’t be. Senate majority leader John Flanagan, ostensibly a charter supporter but widely viewed as Cuomo cat’s paw, deferred to Heastie and otherwise played no significant role in in the process. In the end, charter-school advocates won some minor administrative concessions for existing charters in New York City—and tentative approval to renew 22 existing, but lapsed, charters, but few of them will be permitted to enroll more than 250 students. Measured against the more than 100,000 New York City children now being educated in charters annually—10 percent of the city’s public school students—and against a charter school waiting list exceeding 45,000, last minute claims of a victory ring hollow. 

Charter advocates are bumping up against the limit on the number of independent, not-for-profit public schools imposed when the legislature authorized the charter experiment in 1998—and they had hoped to tie a lifting of the cap to the by-now routine effort to renew the 2002 law giving the mayor direct control of the schools. Alas for them, the linkage didn’t work.

The renewal ritual has become one of those Albany things that seemingly makes no sense on its face, but which in fact is not so perplexing. Like the ceremonial reauthorization of rent regulation, school-control renewal is a prime generator of both campaign contributions and back-scratching chips redeemable for future votes on otherwise unrelated legislation.

While de Blasio got a two-year extension of nominal control out of the special session—conveniently keeping the topic on the shelf next year, when Cuomo presumably seeks reelection—a full range of state and county taxes were also renewed, lower Manhattan got a big tax break, and an upstate race track received a bailout. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that this particular rain dance will be performed for many years to come.

Meanwhile, the obvious cooling of Cuomo’s public ardor for quality public education generally, and for charter schools in particular, has been visible for some time. But it was underscored by his studied absence from the 2017 mayoral-control debate. In part, this can be explained by his dislike of de Blasio—indeed, there’s not much the governor seems to enjoy more than watching the mayor twist in the wind. But, like his once-vigorous but now-abandoned support for tough teacher-accountability standards, his low profile also reflects a new closeness to UFT boss Mulgrew.

By turning his back on charters and accountability—both opposed by teachers' unions—Cuomo gets progressive points redeemable next year. Presumably, the unions will also cushion the loss of the significant campaign contributions that came with support for the charter movement. On balance, then, Cuomo’s nonparticipation was probably a political plus for the governor.

Speaker Heastie, meanwhile, has never pretended to value education itself over amicable relations with the UFT, so at least there was no hypocrisy in his obeisance to the union. His take-it-or-leave-it approach was also reflected in the fact that an end of mayoral control would resurrect the borough-centric Board of Education, thereby producing a patronage windfall for borough-level political leaders like himself.

Similarly, mayoral control itself has become an academic matter for the UFT. The union dominated school governance under the old Board of Education, and there’s no reason to believe that it wouldn’t if mayoral control went away. While there were gargantuan struggles with city hall when Mayor Michael Bloomberg sat there, the UFT agenda swiftly became de Blasio’s when he was elected—particularly regarding teacher compensation and classroom accountability. Both the mayor and the union favor much more compensation and far less accountability.

On the whole, charters demonstrate that quality urban education is possible—a claim that can’t routinely be made for more traditional public schools. But Mulgrew and de Blasio are on the same page regarding charter schools: the fewer, the better. 

De Blasio became mayor with the UFT’s assistance, which he rewarded with a multibillion-dollar labor contract shortly after taking office. So he was basically along for the ride as an extension of mayoral control was decided in a special legislative session. The process took roughly 48 hours from start to finish, and it was a classic Albany evolution: the governor and legislative leaders dictated the outcome, rank-and-file members meekly complied, and a proven alternative to New York City’s largely dysfunctional public education system was stuffed into a box.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


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