Charter advocates, teachers union descend on NY Capitol as fight over Cuomo reforms continues

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ALBANY, New York — Charter school advocates and teachers unions took their fight to the state Capitol on Wednesday with competing events that attracted thousands on both sides of the escalating clash over New York's education policy.

An estimated 13,000 charter school students, teachers and parents rallied on the Capitol steps to support Gov. Andrew Cuomo's call for more of the publicly funded but privately run schools.

"We have been told to sit quiet and accept the status quo," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul told the crowd. "The real scandal in Albany is where politicians turn a blind eye and don't fix a broken system."

Meanwhile, some 1,100 public school teachers gathered at the Empire State Plaza convention center for a United Federation of Teachers lobbying day meant to fight Cuomo's proposals — which also include tougher teacher evaluations and tenure rules.

"You're here for a fight and you're going to get it," Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, told the teachers, many of whom wore buttons with "Fight Cuomo" written on them. "The storm is here in Albany."

Cuomo touched off the fight with teachers when he recommended raising a cap on authorized charter schools from 460 to 560, removing restrictions on where they can be built and giving children in underperforming districts priority in charter lotteries.

The governor also wants to make it harder for teachers to be granted tenure and to revise teacher evaluations to rely more heavily on student test performance.

The initiatives are embedded in Cuomo's $142 billion state budget proposal — which would increase spending on schools by $1.1 billion overall, but only if lawmakers agree to his demands. The budget is now the subject of negotiations with top lawmakers.

Many Democrats side with the teachers unions, while Republicans support many of Cuomo's reforms. Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos spoke at the pro-charter rally; Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie addressed the union.

Afterward, Heastie held out the possibility of compromise.

"We'd like to get to a place where the governor is comfortable and the teachers are comfortable," he said.

Sen. Jeff Klein, who leads a breakaway faction of Senate Democrats, spoke at both gatherings, telling charter supporters that "the most important thing we can do in this legislative session is raise the cap on charters."

Minutes later, he told the union that he supports public school teachers, too. "We have to work this out," he said of the conflict.

Cuomo did not attend the rally, but he told reporters in Syracuse that his proposals are designed to make schools more effective.

"Somebody has to stand up for the students against the teachers union when their interest hurts the student," he said.

Teachers union leaders criticized organizers of the rally for cancelling class and busing thousands of charter students to a political event.

Jeremiah Kittredge, chief executive officer of Families for Excellent Schools, said the rally was a "civic field trip."

The rally featured a performance by the singer Ashanti. Both organizers and Ashanti declined to say if she was paid to participate. The singer told reporters that she supports efforts to improve education.

"The kids are suffering the most," she said.

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