By Tim Branfalt
ALBANY, New York (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put on a show of force in the state capital Albany on Tuesday to persuade lawmakers to adopt his plan for universal preschool funded by tax hikes.
In a sign of his growing impatience with the plan, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo defended his turf at an opposing rally that criticized the mayor's stance on charter schools.
De Blasio insists he needs to increase taxes on high-earning city residents to raise $530 million over the next five years for universal pre-K, something for which he needs state approval.
Cuomo, who has committed to cutting taxes, has set aside $300 million over the next two years to fund pre-school programs. Rather than accept that, De Blasio is building a grass roots movement to push for the tax hike on earners making over $500,000. That has put him on a direct collision course with Cuomo, who faces reelection in November.
"They say it's cold out here, but I don't feel cold, I feel hot! I feel fired up!, Cuomo told an enthusiastic crowd in minus 9 degree Celsius temperatures (15 Fahrenheit). "The education industry has said the same thing for decades: more money, and more money, and more money, and it will change. We spend more money per pupil than any state in the nation; we're number 32 in results."
Cuomo and de Blasio, both Democrats, have political personas that resonate well beyond New York. Cuomo is seen a potential presidential candidate in 2016. De Blasio, New York's first Democrat mayor in 20 years, has drawn attention for the large support base he has mustered behind his progressive platform.
"Clearly there is a conflict and Cuomo specifically went to that rally and was 'hot' and 'fired up'," said Douglas Muzzio, a specialist in New York politics at the City University of New York. "He is staking out political turf there that is very different from what the mayor wants."
Cuomo said 11,000 people attended the Parents Rally organized by Charters Work. Supporters of charter schools, public schools that operate outside the city's department of education, are upset with de Blasio's decision to block three charter schools from using space inside public schools.
Public education is a divisive issue that impacts the lives of millions of New Yorkers. Competition to get students into charter schools or the best public schools is fierce with many parents seeing it as a make or break issue for their children.
Nathan Buck from Harlem attended the rally because his son, a first grader, goes to Success Academy Five, a local charter school where he won a place in a blind lottery.
"There is a misconception that charter schools are private schools and they are, in fact, public schools," said Buck.
De Blasio insists it is wrong to confuse charter schools with the issue of universal pre-school. At his event around 1,500 activist parents sent emails and letters to lawmakers, listened to speeches and met with state politicians.
Ruth Arsenec, a single mother from Staten Island, who made the trip to Albany to support de Blasio's plan, is trying to get her three-year old son into pre-school next September but is not sure if she will be able to find a place for him.
"I am hoping that he will get in," said Arsenec, who became aware of the benefits of pre-school education after her daughter, now five, passed through a pre-school program. "It was just completely astonishing to me to see how she developed and how quickly."
(This version of the story corrects spelling of reporter's name to Branfalt from Brandfalt)
(Writing by Edward Krudy; editing by Andrew Hay)