by Leonie Haimson
In New York, there was a tremendous sea change in our State Legislature. For decades, our State Senate has been dominated by a bipartisan majority that has aggressively represented the interests of the charter school lobby, and their campaigns have been heavily funded by Wall Street billionaires and corporate CEOs who are intent on privatizing our public schools to the degree possible. In budget negotiations they have opposed equitable education funding, have repeatedly pushed for charter school caps to be increased and for these schools to receive preferences for space and funding, particularly in New York City.
Because of an explosion of grassroots resistance and an unprecedented level of organizing across the state, six out of eight of these Senators were defeated in the primaries on Sept. 13 by progressive challengers. All of these challengers were highly critical of the privatization movement. One of them, Robert Jackson, is the former chair of the NYC Council Education committee, and before that, the lead plaintiff in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit to demand equitable funding for NYC and other high-need districts.
On Nov. 6 in the general elections, only one Senate seat had to flip for more progressive Democrats to take control of the State Senate. Instead, eight seats turned over. This is a seismic shift that will likely mean support for a whole raft of progressive policies, including more equitable education funding, new accountability measures for charter schools, and keeping the cap on charters, with only eight currently remaining for NYC.
In August, Daniel Loeb, prominent hedge fund billionaire and board member of Success Academy charter schools praised pro-charter Senator Jeff Klein and said that that Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American woman, has done more damage to “people of color” than the KKK by opposing charters:
Loeb later apologized but the damage was done. In September, Jeff Klein lost his seat to a young, progressive woman from the Bronx named Alexandra Biaggi, and Andrea Stewart-Cousins will become the new Majority leader of the State Senate.
The Assembly has been led for three years by Speaker Carl Heastie from the Bronx, who up to now has been steadfast in his support of public schools. That is expected to continue though the charter lobby is clearly wooing him. Before the election, several Bronx candidates received big contributions to their campaigns from Daniel Loeb and other charter school supporters, and last summer, the Bronx County Democratic Party received $10,000 from New Yorkers for Putting Students First, a pro-charter PAC.
Another winner on Nov. 6 was Letitia James, who is the first black woman to gain statewide office in New York. As NYC Public Advocate, James has been on the frontlines, fighting for the rights of public school students, and for more accountability for charter schools to prevent them from abusing the rights of their students through excessive suspensions and push outs.
The wildcard in all this is Governor Cuomo, who handily won re-election, and remains largely captive to the charter lobby. He received $130,000 during his campaign from donors with ties to the charter school industry, including the Walton family and two pro-charter PACs. At his debate with his opponent, Cuomo said he would to try to persuade Mayor de Blasio to give charters even more space in our public school buildings.
Yet now he will be pushed much harder to represent the interests of the state’s students, most of whom attend public schools, rather than the billionaires who have advocated for raising the cap on charters and giving them preferential treatment.
Another key education issue will come up for a vote of the New York Legislature this spring: the continuation of mayoral control in NYC. When Michael Bloomberg was mayor, the Senate strongly supported its continuation, as Bloomberg was a large contributor in the state and favored charter expansion. After Bill de Blasio was elected Mayor, the Assembly pressed hardest for its continuation – with the Senate now opposing it, and using the issue as a bargaining chip in negotiations in exchange for further concessions on charter schools, including that NYC charters should obtain free space at the city’s expense.
Most NYC parents also understand that without any checks and balances, Mayoral control too often leads to autocratic and damaging policies, and the polls show that the majority of voters favor the Mayor sharing power over our schools with other locally elected representatives. Chicago will likely return to an elected school board next year, after more than 20 years of mayoral control, with the support of their State Legislature and their newly-elected governor J.D. Pritzker. Hopefully, with the infusion of progressive members, the legislature will no longer look at this critical issue through a purely partisan lens and add checks and balances to Mayoral control.