It was perhaps fitting that Mayor Bill de Blasio found himself Sunday at Riverside Church, the neo-Gothic landmark in Morningside Heights: The church was long a cathedral of antiwar sentiment, and the mayor was looking to make peace.
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For weeks, Mr. de Blasio had been locked in a battle with advocates of charter schools, who were denouncing him around the clock in a $3.6 million advertising blitz. The results were beginning to show: His education agenda seemed rudderless, and his popularity in polls was slipping.
So on Sunday, Mr. de Blasio struck a conciliatory tone, acknowledging missteps and emphasizing common ground. He quoted a theologian, Paul Tillich, saying, “The noise of these shallow waters prevents us from listening to the sounds out of the depth.”
Charter schools and their backers represent perhaps the most formidable political threat to Mr. de Blasio’s young administration, and the mayor has taken notice.
In recent weeks, he has spoken about the need to educate all children, regardless of the type of school they attend. And in private, he has phoned titans of Wall Street and philanthropy, explaining that he does not want to “destroy” charter schools, according to several business executives who spoke with Mr. de Blasio.
For a mayor who won election by denouncing the excesses of business and speaking passionately of the need to bridge the gap between rich and poor, the conversations have been awkward. But increasingly, Mr. de Blasio seems determined to move beyond what he sees as a perilous distraction and to avoid the wrath of a well-financed charter-school movement.
“There’s a desire on the part of the business community to work with the mayor,” said Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a coalition of business leaders. “The question that has been raised is whether that’s mutual.”
Charter school leaders have seized on a key vulnerability. While black and Latino residents overwhelmingly backed Mr. de Blasio in last year’s election, many also embrace the cause of charter schools, which operate primarily in low-income neighborhoods.
Families for Excellent Schools, a charter school advocacy group, began running advertisements last month attacking Mr. de Blasio for his decision to deny public space to three charter schools run by Success Academy Charter Schools, a high-performing network. In defending his decision, the mayor said he worried about losing space for special education programs, and he expressed concern about having elementary school students attend classes on high school campuses. He also allowed almost every other charter school to continue using public school space, and more recently, has promised to find space at another site for one of the three Success schools, an existing school that wants to add older grades.
In one ad, the smiling faces of the school’s students zoom across the screen and then begin to disappear.
“They love their school and all the opportunities it brings,” a narrator says. “But Mayor Bill de Blasio just announced he is closing their school, taking away their hopes and dreams.”
In another, a parent named Maria offers a direct message to Mr. de Blasio: “You’re not thinking about the people that you’re hurting.”
The campaign seems to have taken a toll on the mayor’s popularity, and his aides have acknowledged as much. A poll by Quinnipiac University last week showed that 38 percent of voters approved of Mr. de Blasio’s handling of New York City schools, while 49 percent disapproved. The poll last week showed that 45 percent of voters approved of the new mayor, down from 53 percent two months ago.
Longtime supporters of charter schools, including the Walton Family Foundation and the hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, are helping finance the ad campaign, according to an individual involved in the effort.
In recent days, Mr. de Blasio has aggressively reached out to Wall Street financiers, including Mr. Tudor Jones, in hopes of easing tensions and ending the ads, which are running dozens of times a day. He also has spoken with Daniel S. Loeb, chairman of the board of Success Academy and Jonathan D. Gray, chairman of the board of Harlem Village Academies, another charter network.
In those conversations, Mr. de Blasio has sought to tamp down concerns that he holds a grudge against Wall Street or wealthy individuals, according to a banker who spoke with Mr. de Blasio but declined to be identified for fear of harming his relationship with the mayor.
The reception was mixed. Some of those the mayor called said they walked away from the conversations reassured about Mr. de Blasio’s commitment to charter schools. But some said they were still concerned about his educational vision, including his plan to charge rent to charter schools, and others said their critiques of Mr. de Blasio extended beyond charter schools and included his support for raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for prekindergarten and after-school programs.
Phil Walzak, the mayor’s press secretary, said the conversations were part of a broader effort by Mr. de Blasio to unite community leaders, philanthropists and educators around his vision for the city. “These outreach efforts underscore the mayor’s commitment to uniting people and working together to ensure every child in New York City receives a great education,” he said in a statement.
Many charter school leaders, accustomed to favorable treatment under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, fear that Mr. de Blasio will hinder their growth in New York. Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run, and are typically not unionized. Mr. Bloomberg gave charter schools free space in public school buildings, a policy Mr. de Blasio has criticized as squeezing out traditional schools. Eva S. Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman who runs the Success Academy network, raised several million dollars for advocacy efforts in anticipation of Mr. de Blasio’s tenure, according to a person familiar with her efforts. Mr. de Blasio had singled out Ms. Moskowitz during the campaign, saying, “She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported.”
Kevin Hall, a Success Academy board member and president of the Charter School Growth Fund, said it had become necessary for educators to plan robust political efforts.
“In some ways these guys have gotten pulled into being in the advocacy realm because the world kind of changed around them,” he said. “People are trying to figure out now, how do we mobilize our families and others to better tell our story than we have?”
The attacks on Mr. de Blasio have created divisions within the charter school community. A small coalition of charter school leaders has distanced itself from the recent advertising campaign in hopes of building better relations with City Hall. The group released a statement on Sunday praising the mayor’s speech. “We share a belief that our city needs a high-quality charter sector that collaborates with district schools,” the group said.
For all his talk of camaraderie on Sunday, Mr. de Blasio made clear that he would not swerve from his underlying agenda: focusing attention and resources on traditional public schools, by expanding access to prekindergarten and after-school programs.
“The answer is not to save a few of our children only,” he said. “The answer is not to find an escape route that some can follow and others can’t. The answer is to fix the entire system.”I’m Jamie Squillare, and as a teacher, I agree that camaraderie between schools, government, and communities is extremely crucial to ensure that every child in the country has access to quality education regardless of his or her social status. Click here to read more news on education andliterature.