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NY charter school dispute exposes fault lines for Dems prior to 2016

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FILE: Sept.16, 2013: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at City Hall in New York, N.Y.REUTERS

The future of the Democrat Party is being charted in New York as its governor and the city's mayor wage a battle over charter schools that touches on race, unions, Wall Street money and other issues that stand to redefine the party.

The divide has largely centered on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's objection to newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to limit the growth of charter schools. But underneath the public dispute lies larger questions about the party's long-standing support from teachers unions and the uneasy alliance that politicians -- particularly those eyeing national office -- have with Wall Street.

Cuomo insists his support for charters is about "smart government" and his commitment to fixing a broken education system -- not garnering powerful, deep-pocketed political backing.

"Education is … not about the pensions, not about the unions and not about the lobbyists and not about the PR firms. Education is about the students," he said during a March 4 charter school rally at the state capital in Albany.

Michael McShane, an education policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, says the in-state fight will have 2016 implications.

He says Cuomo finds himself in a position similar to that of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Democrat, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Republican, who are at odds with public unions as they try to restructure contracts and pensions to keep solvent their respective city and state.

"And educational opportunity is a one way street," McShane said, pointing out President Obama's support for charter schools. "Once you give parents a choice, it's hard to take away. ... This is a big issue."

Teachers union have strongly supported de Blasio, who in turn has tried to protect their interests against ambitious charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, with few if any unionize teachers.

Cuomo has been mentioned as a top-tier, potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. But such talk began to fade when friend Hillary Clinton appeared on the scene about 13 months ago. And since then, he has made few national TV appearances or trips outside the state, saying he’s focused on winning a second term in November.

Still, observers argue Cuomo continues to align himself with charters, because of their popularity among results-driven hedge fund managers and other Wall Street types whose money will help him win re-election.

WATCH: Giuliani on New York charter school fight

The governor has already received nearly $400,000 in contribution from supporters of the Success Academy Charter School, a de Blasio target.

And the amount nearly doubles when including bankers, philanthropists, advocacy groups and real estate and business executives that in recent years have "flocked" to charter schools and other education causes, according to an analysis of Cuomo's 2014 campaign contributions by Chalkbeat.org, a nonprofit news group covering education.

De Blasio's populist campaign message -- which focused on income inequality and resonated all the way to the White House -- included a vow to put a moratorium on closing low-performing public schools, which arguably provides charters with potential new facilities.

Then after taking office in January, he diverted $210 million in city funds marked for charter schools to help finance his mission to provide free pre kindergarten classes.

However, the firestorm between de Blasio and Cuomo and other charter advocates ignited several weeks later when the mayor stopped three charter programs from expanding within public schools.

Last weekend, the mayor, facing sagging polls numbers and a multi-million negative ad campaign led by charter advocates, softened his position, saying he wanted to work more through compromise. Cuomo's office has declined to give a response to de Blasio’s repositioning. However, the dispute appears far from over.

Though de Blasio’s offered last weekend to work together, he also re-stated his goal to increase access to pre kindergarten and after-school programs.

Cuomo and legislative leaders have reached a deal to provide $300 million in the next state budget to expand pre kindergarten in New York City that does not include a tax increase on high-earning city residents that de Blasio wanted to pay for the two programs, The New York Times reported Saturday. 

William Galston, chairman of the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program, argues the relationship between the Democratic Party and public unions, with their money and ability to get voters to the polls, has been "controversial since the '90s."

"This is a challenge the Democratic Party has been facing for a very long time," he said earlier this week. "But it's certainly not a fault line."

Another issue is that many charters are in poorer urban neighborhoods and are considered a better alternative for minority families than sending their children to under-performing public schools.

Minorities have in recent years largely supported the Democratic Party, with the country’s grown Hispanic population giving Obama roughly 71 percent of the vote in 2012. And Republicans have since looked for ways to better appeal to those voters.