Evapalooza returns to Albany on Wednesday morning. Once again, Eva Moskowitz, the ferocious founder and leader of the Success Academy charter school network, and a coalition of charter operators and advocates will bus thousands of kids, parents, and teachers to the state capitol for a noisy rally. Just like last year, there will be colorful T-shirts on the kids, and there will be celebrities to stoke attention (Lisa Leslie! Janelle Monáe! Fonzworth Bentley! Fonzworth Bentley?)
For all the theatrics, though, what’s most interesting about this year’s edition is that it is shaping up as an underwhelming sequel. In part that’s because the March 4, 2014, charter rally was a pivotal event — both for the state’s educational system and for its politics. And while most of the key players are the same, the dynamics have shifted significantly in a mere year.
Moskowitz won much of the first round. The polarizing former city councilwoman got the state to ensure charters get free space in existing public schools, and forced the city to subsidize the rent if charters need to locate in private buildings. This time Moskowitz is pressing to raise the cap on the number of charters — from the current 256 in the city and 460 statewide — a goal she has a decent chance of achieving.
Mayor Bill de Blasio says he believes the existing cap is sufficient — a strikingly mild rhetorical stance. It’s an indication of two things: that de Blasio learned from his tactical mistakes in confronting charters last spring, and that the mayor has far bigger items than charters on his education agenda. De Blasio’s key challenges now include renewing mayoral control of the public schools and getting the state to live up to more of its court-ordered funding obligation.
Education issues may rank lower on de Blasio’s list of priorities this year, but they’ve risen to the top of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 plans. Cuomo was the special guest star of last year’s rally — swooping in opportunistically to boost Moskowitz and to jab at de Blasio, who was speaking at a competing rally in favor of his (ultimately successful) pre-kindergarten proposal.
Cuomo won’t reprise his role at the rally (and de Blasio won’t be in Albany). Charters are only one element of the governor’s sweeping education agenda, which he’s elevated by including in this year’s state budget draft. Other points — rejiggering the teacher evaluation process, taking over failing schools — are more contentious. And this year Cuomo is picking a fight with the teachers’ unions instead of the mayor. In December, Cuomo ramped up hostilities through an aggressively worded letter from his director of state operations to the state education commissioner.
“The governor drove over to our house and shot our dog with that letter,” a teachers’ union executive says. “But I don’t understand what he thinks he’s going to get out of this.”
In contrast to 2014, the political ripples from Wednesday’s rally will play out fairly quietly and slowly. Last year Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was able to mitigate the charters’ gains. This year Silver is fending off a federal indictment. “Shelly was our guy,” a union leader says, mournfully. The new speaker of the state Assembly, Carl Heastie, has been against the co-location of charters in conventional schools, but he hasn’t opposed charters in general.
Heastie, too, has larger issues to contend with as he finds his bearings as Assembly leader, including rent regulations and ethics reform. But the charter industry believes it now has an opening to cultivate support, through personal lobbying and campaign donations, with individual Assembly members — something that was difficult with Silver in charge. This year’s charter rally won’t have the immediate substantive impact that last year’s did. But its aftermath will provide an insight into whether a new era really is beginning in Albany.