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De Blasio’s Pre-K Plan: Are Charter Schools In the Picture?

By Sandhya Subbarao for NY City Lens

Despite his public disagreements with Governor Andrew Cuomo on how to fund them, Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to forge ahead on his campaign promise to institute universal Pre-K programs across city schools. One looming question: Will he include charter schools in his ambitious Pre-K plan? The jury is still out.

When it comes to charter schools, de Blasio has already separated himself from former mayor Michael Bloomberg, a strong charter advocate, and criticized the former administration’s policy of co-locating charter schools in public school buildings.

Speaking on the Brian Lehrer show on February 3, the mayor said that Bloomberg’s decision to co-locate schools “was a broken one,” because “it didn’t consult with parents and communities effectively,” and the mayor has placed a moratorium on all new charter school co-locations. In addition, his newly appointed New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, presented a five-year capital budget plan on January 31, that seeks to divert $200 billion away from the charter school construction budget, and instead, toward the mayor’s pre-K initiative.

These measures have been greeted with applause from many public school advocates. But charter school supporters worry about the financial implications of the new mayor’s decisions, especially for some charter schools that may not have the resources to buy or rent space without government assistance.

So the question of whether de Blasio’s Pre-K initiative will include charter schools is being closely watched. Charter school advocates want to see if the Mayor will include charter schools in his push to create 73,000 pre-kindergarten seats as part of his universal pre-kindergarten plan, or if he will choose to provide City funding to public schools only.

And they are pushing hard. “This administration has a decision to make, and soon,” says James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center. “If they are interested in results, they will make sure high-performing charter schools are fully included in the pre-K program, including capital funding. Otherwise it will be clear that their move to push Pre-K is more about ideology than about helping children.”

Current state law disqualifies charters from receiving state funds for Pre-K education, as charter schools are defined by the state to be schools that offer an education from kindergarten up. Michael Rebell, the Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, a non-profit research and policy center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says, “Charter’s have a major hurdle to overcome. Currently they are not allowed to receive capital funds from the state. The legislation that governs charter schools must be changed in order for them to receive moneys from the state.”

The New York Education Commission, a panel advising Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on education reform recommended that state leaders amend the law to allow existing charter schools to offer prekindergarten. Speaking to The New York Times on January 16, de Blasio was circumspect. “We’re going to look at that and see how that might fit with our plan,” he said.

Rebell says, “all charter schools are public schools, but they also raise private money,” and this difference is at the root of some of the disagreements about them. In addition to receiving federal and state funds, Rebell explains, schools incorporated under a charter can also seek private funding, and many do. Charter schools also have greater flexibility in governance, including the hiring and termination of teachers and the payment of pension and retirement costs.

Some public school advocates say they have no problem with funding Pre-K at charters. “We do not oppose Pre-K funding for charter schools. There is no reason why they should not be allowed funding in the Mayor’s universal pre-kindergarten plan,’ says Mona Davids, President of the New York City Parents Union, an advocacy group that fights for the rights of parents. “What we do oppose is co-location. Charter schools must pay rent.” Davids is not averse to a sliding scale of rent payments to assist charter schools that have limited means and cannot afford to pay New York City rents.

Governor Cuomo is opposed to funding Pre-K with new taxes on the city’s wealthy residents. The Governor would like the state to pay for Pre-K programs. De Blasio has argued that only a dedicated tax can guarantee a support system for universal Pre-K into the future.

Speaking after the Mayor’s State of the City speech February 10, Dean Skelos, A Republican state senator and the co-leader of the Senate’s majority coalition, agreed with Governor Cuomo’s plan for Pre-K classes funded by the state. He said he won’t let the chamber vote on the mayor’s agenda to increase taxes to fund his signature proposal for universal Pre-K. Republicans believe tax increases would drive New Yorkers away from the city and hurt the state’s economy. The coalition’s other co-leader, Democratic Sen. Jeff Klein, is backing de Blasio.

Last week, de Blasio appointed Richard Buery as Deputy Mayor of Strategic Policy Initiatives, whose priority will be to work with Albany to fund the universal Pre-K program. New Yorkers will be closely watching city and state negotiations.


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