Pre-K, Charter Schools, and Hostage-Taking in New York

At the end of last week, New York’s ongoing argument over how to pay for pre-K slots took a new turn. On Friday, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that the city would try to redirect $210 million in funds supporting charter school classrooms to expand Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program. The New York Times described the funds this way:

Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who made charter schools a centerpiece of his strategy to overhaul education in the city, had set aside the money for construction. Over the years, prominent groups like the Harlem Children’s Zone had used it to open new buildings, a welcome benefit since charter schools are not allowed to spend public dollars on new facilities.

Until now, charter schools were mostly minor players in the bigger pre-K debate: De Blasio has expressed skepticism that charters should be allowed to offer pre-K programs (New York law currently bars them from doing so), but Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission released a report recommending that they be permitted to do so.

But this latest move connects de Blasio’s charter skepticism directly to his push for universal pre-K. By threatening the charters’ expansion budget, he can convert the schools into leverage in his standoff with Governor Cuomo.

Here’s the logic of the various pressure points involved: de Blasio wants pay for universal pre-K by raising marginal tax rates on New York City residents making half-a-million dollars or more each year. He needs Albany to sign off on the increase. Cuomo counters by offering state money to cover (a pretty small fraction of) the costs of making pre-K access universal in the state—let alone New York City. De Blasio can’t get the tax hike and won’t accept Cuomo’s underbid.

Most coverage has framed the standoff in this way, which makes it seem as though Cuomo holds all the cards.

But he’s also a strong supporter of charter schools. De Blasio’s move to cut charters’ expansion funds could capitalize on that. Consider how this could change the balance of the pre-K debate: de Blasio’s administration is considering taking from charters’ share of the city budget to expand pre-K investments, since, after all, he’s not permitted to raise the money through his preferred tax hike.

Worth noting: New York City is home to 183 of the state’s 259 charter schools. De Blasio can make things very unpleasant very quickly for a substantial majority of the state’s charters.

Is this really what de Blasio has in mind? I’m not sure. But there’s no question that the move could give him some leverage. This move could make the charter schools’ expansion fund a political hostage. Cuomo’s up for reelection this fall, parents of charter school students are angry, and it might just make sense for the governor to offer more flexibility on de Blasio’s tax proposed tax increase to save these funds (and perhaps other concessions) for charters.

That said, this isn’t de Blasio’s only potential strategy. As I put it in a column at Talking Points Memo last week,

de Blasio could call Cuomo’s bluff by setting the revenue question aside, taking the state’s money, and ramping up the pre-K program in New York City as quickly as possible. He’d burn the (statewide) $100 million without breaking a sweat…If de Blasio came back with gaudy enrollment numbers and correspondingly large budget needs, he’d be in a commanding political position. After all, Cuomo boasted that “We’re very good at writing checks.” He can’t credibly slow down New York City’s implementation of universal pre-K, since he blocked de Blasio’s tax hike on the wealthy on the grounds that the additional revenue wasn’t necessary.

De Blasio already has leverage—without antagonizing the city’s charter school parents. What’s more, while de Blasio has been consistently antagonistic to the city’s charter schools, they could be powerful allies in his efforts to expand pre-K access as quickly as possible. Many are eager to offer pre-K for their students (provided that the state lifts its ban), since they have committed to specific curricula and pedagogical practices that would benefit from an earlier start. They may be positioned well to offer early education options that are aligned to the rest of their primary (and sometimes secondary) grades—something that can be challenging for pre-K classrooms that send students to a variety of schools offering a variety of kindergarten models. If de Blasio wants to ramp up pre-K offerings as quickly as possible to benefit as many children as possible, it’s odd that he would eschew cooperating with charters (which enroll at least 5 percent of the city’s public school students).

The payoff: if this admittedly speculative picture is right, then the pre-K fight in New York could get uglier before it gets resolved. Stay tuned.

(Note: for more on charter schools, read my new column in today’s Talking Points Memo.)

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams