- Associated Press - Friday, March 14, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - As the slugfest over paying for pre-kindergarten moves into the late rounds with a deal seemingly in reach, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo appeared to shift attention to his next battleground with the mayor of his state’s largest city: charter schools.

The pivot comes two weeks before the state budget is due and a day after the state Senate tentatively authorized giving New York City the money needed to launch pre-kindergarten, though not the tax hike on the rich Mayor Bill de Blasio said he needed to pay for it. Cuomo, a Democrat, suddenly seized upon the importance of the privately run but publicly funded charter schools after de Blasio ruled last month that three of them would lose their spaces in public school buildings.

“Co-location is a decision that is basically left up to mayors,” Cuomo said Friday after a budget speech in Manhattan. “If a mayor says, ‘You can’t co-locate and I’m not giving you any funding to go anywhere else,’ you could de facto put charter schools out of business, you could de facto stop the charter movement.”

“And we don’t want that to happen in any city,” Cuomo said. “And the state law would have to address that.”

Cuomo is up for re-election this fall and has positioned himself to the right of the liberal de Blasio on several issues to appeal to conservative voters upstate and moderates in New York City’s suburbs.

He has suddenly remade himself as a champion for charters, many of which are backed by moneyed interests, including hedge fund managers. Earlier this month, Cuomo appeared at a rally in Albany to protest the evictions of the three schools, all of which are run by de Blasio’s longtime political rival Eva Moskowitz.

And he told the crowd at the Association for a Better New York, a group of business leaders, on Friday that he hopes for more state authority over charter schools, which could undermine some mayoral control of the city school system. The specifics of the proposed state law have not been determined.

De Blasio’s advisers pointed out that the mayor upheld the co-locations for 14 of the 17 charters approved in the final days of his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. De Blasio has vowed to change the co-location process, opening it up for more public input.

“This administration believes firmly that charter schools are an important part of this education system,” Deputy Mayor Richard Buery said Friday. “Three charter schools weren’t co-located, while the vast majority of schools were put through. It’s a little bit of a red herring. I’m not sure what the argument is.”

De Blasio has made universal pre-kindergarten the centerpiece of his first year in office and proposed to pay for the program with a tax hike on the city’s wealthy. But while the state Assembly’s budget resolution contained the tax, the Senate’s did not, effectively putting it on life support. But the Senate resolution did authorize at least $540 million to the state for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, which would cover the cost of de Blasio’s ambitious plan.

Cuomo downplayed the Senate resolution, insisting that while the state government would pay for pre-kindergarten across the state, it would not pre-determine dollar amounts.

“It’s in essence a ‘first come, first serve’ and I want to use that competition to bring that online quickly,” said Cuomo, who said a statewide fund would pay for pre-kindergarten in the order in which cities were ready for students. “If we just say to a city you have ‘X amount’ than there is no urgency for them to get it done.”

De Blasio has said New York would be ready for 53,000 pre-k students this fall and 73,000 by September 2015. The state budget is expected to be completed by April 1.

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Michael Hill and Michael Viraten contributed reporting in Albany, N.Y.

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