Why Mayor de Blasio Is Softening His Talk on Charter Schools

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Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Mayor Bill de Blasio has taken to two important pulpits — Riverside Church and The Brian Lehrer Show — in the past 24 hours to deliver the same sermon: He doesn’t hate charter schools.

That’s been the headline, understandably. But there were two more important themes to de Blasio’s remarks, and they weren’t really about charters — they were about money and the larger school system.

The mayor’s tone regarding charters, yesterday and today, was indeed softer. The substance, however, wasn’t terribly different from what de Blasio has said for months: He considers the skirmishing over charters a distraction from the larger, tougher task of improving education for non-charter students. “Six percent of our children in the charters — they are our children. We need them to succeed,” de Blasio said Sunday. “Ninety-four percent of our children are in traditional public schools — they are our children. We need them to succeed.”

Set aside for now whether traditional schools can learn anything from charters. In case you haven’t heard, de Blasio believes systemic improvement begins with expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. The battle to make that happen is coming down to its final week in Albany, and that’s the context in which charters are truly important to the mayor.

“One of the keys when you’re trying to get something from Andrew is to let the governor feel like he’s won the game, and that he’s in control of the game,” a Cuomo ally says. “He was never going to give de Blasio the tax increase. But de Blasio, by making the mistake of canceling those charters in the middle of the budget season, may end up stumbling into more money for pre-K.”

That’s because Cuomo seized the chance to “rescue” charters, making it easier for him to give ground to the legislature on the amount of funding for pre-K. “You can’t deny that Andrew is a genius of opportunism,” a de Blasio advisor says. “But it’s also why I hate him at times.”

The dance, though, is not done. The $540 million in the State Senate budget for de Blasio’s school programs was an opening bid, but the final dollar amount — as well as crucial terms and conditions about how it can be spent — are still being debated. The mayor’s strong hand in the legislature was in danger of being weakened as the furor over charters continued, with pro-charter TV ads beating up on de Blasio. His speech yesterday was an attempt to shift focus from the charter arguments and seal a victory on pre-K cash.

Yet even as the mayor was speaking to one audience in Albany, he was playing to another one locally: The teachers’ union. Talking with Lehrer this morning, the mayor never explicitly mentioned the sticky, ongoing negotiations over a new contract, but he stroked the teachers, vowing to increase “respect for the profession” and to “make sure the working environment is made more positive.”

The union’s leadership loves that kind of talk, and de Blasio’s new emphasis on boosting teacher retention in the traditional schools. Whether the UFT’s negotiators love it enough to take less than the $3.4 billion in retroactive raises they’ve been demanding is a different question. Fighting with Eva Moskowitz has been unpleasant for de Blasio, but it may turn out to be a day at the beach compared to cutting a deal with his good friends in labor.