It’s the same game of political poker with the city’s 1.1 million school children and charter schools being used as chips that political party maverick State Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Borough Park, Flatbush, Midwood) has seen the past three years.
For those keeping score, as the state legislature readies to end its 2017 legislation session tonight, the State Senate is blocking its approval of giving mayoral control of city schools to Mayor Bill de Blasio, and if they don’t the city’s public school system will fall back into the old independent government entity under the old Board of Education system.
At issue is lifting the cap for the number of public charter schools in the city. There are currently only 23 charters left under the current cap, with a waiting list of about 50,000 students wanting to get into charter schools.
De Blasio is against lifting the cap, and he, along with his supporters including the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and a number of city elected officials feel, the Senate [with many upstate electeds that do not represent the city] are playing a political game of chicken with the education of city kids at stake.
These forces argue that any move to further expand charter schools will take money away from improving public schools for everybody, and not just those lucky enough to get into charter schools.
De Blasio along with Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Comptroller Scott Stringer and a host of unions urged Senate leaders earlier this week at a City Hall press conference to pass mayoral control before the looming deadline of June 30.
The Mayor touted increased graduation rates, a decrease in the dropout rate and the implementation of programs like universal Pre-K as the products of mayoral control. De Blasio went further to stress the sense of urgency by defining the havoc that is sure to ensue if the senate does not extend mayoral control. This includes an additional cost of running schools under the old Board of Education model of up to $1.6 billion and an unorganized mess.
“When you get a good report card, you get promoted,” said Farina, adding she appreciates the clear hierarchy of mayoral control and remembers the day when you could a job with the old BOard of Education because you worked on someone’s campaign.
Ironically, among the senate’s frustration with de Blasio’s lack of transparency and increases in the Department of Education spending, particularly in the DOE’s central office.
According to the city’s Independent Budget Office, that spending has increased from about $383 million when de Blasio was elected in FY 2013 to $409 million in the last fiscal year  or about 7 percent.
Additionally, hiring at the DOE central headquarters has risen from 1,880 in June 2014 to 2,183 as of March 2017, or a 16% increase. De Blasio has attributed these increases to the implementation of his Pre-K initiative, but as KCP has reported, his administration is rife with political patronage jobs.
But even de Blasio’s adversaries such as Republican mayoral candidates Paul Massey and Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis (R-Bay Ridge, Staten Island), as well as State Sen. Marty Golden (R-Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach) say they support de Blasio getting renewal of mayoral control at least for a year as the mayor is up for re-election
On the other side, charter school advocates feel the de Blasio is drawing a line in the sand against the increase of charter school caps because he is beholden to powerful civil service unions such as the UFT which contribute heavily to de Blasio – both financially and politically.
“Mayor de Blasio is playing chicken with the futures of 48,000-plus students waiting for a shot at a better education through charter schools. Parents should be appalled,” said Brandon Muir, executive director of Reclaim New York, a non-partisan watchdog government group aligned that advocates for charter school.
“It’s a no-brainer to lift the charter school cap and extend Mayoral control. If the Mayor really cared about improving education quality, he’d encourage Assembly leader Heastie to make the deal with the Senate,” he added.
Felder,a registered Democrat, caucuses with the Republican Party, unlike the breakaway senate Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), which has forged a ruling coalition with Senate Republicans. He is considered a key player is senate Democrats as a whole can overcome their dysfunction and begin working together again.
Felder has also long been at odds with de Blasio dating back to when the two were colleagues in the City Council. He is also an Orthodox Jew and supporter of tax breaks to parents who send their children to yeshivas and other private and parochial schools – a controversial issue that many Democrats oppose because it will take much-needed money away from public schools.
“I don’t think there’s any arguments whether there should be mayoral control of city schools or not. Nobody disagrees that the old [Board of Ed] system worked. With mayoral control there is clearly the benefit of having someone responsible, who can have accountability nd transparency and everything that goes along with that,” said Felder.
“It boils down to making sure that all children and in the city get a fair shake and that parents know what’s bets for their children, and where and how they get what’s best for their children. This bickering over charter schools is not funny. They are here to stay, and clearly in my mind, competition is good, and while children are not products, competition brings better products at a cheaper price. So having charter schools and regular public schools compete is a good thing. Some public schools do a good job and others do not. Some charter schools do a good job and other do not.
“We know there are about 50,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools, and this point in time there has been no increase in allowance for charter school seats. If there’s a demand we should increase the cap. At the end of the day public schools will not go out of business, and most of the children wanting to get into charter schools are from minority [Black and Hispanic] households,” said Felder.
On the issue of money, Felder, who has a bookkeeping background and was deputy comptroller under former City Comptroller John Liu, said he believed de Blasio has not been forthcoming in providing an accounting of DOE spending.
“According to Sen. Flanagan [senate majority leader Sen. John Flanagan], requests were made and not answered, and then when they got answers, they were thrown thousands of pages of non-relevant material,” said Felder.