Eva Moskowitz: Teachers Union Enemy No. 1
Ohanian Comment; The reason I'm posting this is to keep a record of the Moskowitz-Cuomo bond.
I'll just mention in passing that as a participant in a conference at Queens College some years back, I was publicly insulted by Ms Moskowitz while we were both standing at the dais. She sneered at my heartfelt account of teaching a dyslexic 7th grader. I listened politely to her account of her own accomplishments.
I'd say the headline here is a gross exaggeration. The teachers union can speak for themselves. But certainly teachers' Enemy No. 1 is poverty. The piece leashed a flood of comments from people who hate teachers.
Anyway, the artfully shaded account below is just what you'd expect from a member of the Wall Street Editorial Board, another Yale graduate. But the bit about Cuomo is interesting and worth storing--for when he becomes a presidential candidate.
By Matthew Kaminski
For several months running, the Bill and Eva Show has been the talk of New York City politics. He is the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, an unapologetic old-school liberal Democrat, scourge of the rich and of public charter schools. She is Eva Moskowitz, fellow Democrat and educational-reform champion who runs the city's largest charter network.
How did Ms. Moskowitz, a hero to thousands of New Yorkers of modest means whose children have been able to get a better education than their local public schools offered, end up becoming public enemy No. 1?
She is the city's most prominent, and vocal, advocate for charter schools, and therefore a threat to the powerful teachers union that had been counting the days until the de Blasio administration took over last month from the charter-friendly Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Assailed by Mayor de Blasio and union leaders, Ms. Moskowitz is fighting back with typically sharp elbows.
"A progressive Democrat should be embracing charters, not rejecting them," she says. "It's just wacky."
As she reminds every audience, the 6,700 students at her 22 Success Academy Charter Schools are overwhelmingly from poor, minority families and scored in the top 1% in math and top 7% in English on the most recent state test. Four in five charters in the city outperformed comparable schools.
"We think one of the sins of American education is intellectually underestimating children," she says. "It's so much more engaging for kids when they're challenged." Her other complaint about many traditional schools: "It's incredibly boring." While those public schools don't have her flexibility to design a curriculum and hire and fire teachers, "engagement doesn't cost any money. It can be done tomorrow if the adults decide that boredom is not acceptable and you embrace a curriculum that's interesting and rigorous."
Such astringent assessments of public education-as-usual are fighting words in New York and other cities where schools find themselves struggling to explain chronic underperformance.
Mr. de Blasio explicitly campaigned last year against chartersÃ¢€”and against Ms. Moskowitz in particular. In May at a forum hosted by the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, the potent government-employee local: "It's time for Eva Moskowitz to stop having the run of the place. . . . She has to stop being tolerated, enabled, supported." In July, on his plans to charge chartersÃ¢€”which are independently run public schoolsÃ¢€”for sharing space with city-run public schools: "There's no way in hell Eva Moskowitz should get free rent, O.K.?"
She gave as good as she got: Last fall, when it became clear that Mr. de Blasio was likely to become the next mayor, Ms. Moskowitz led nearly 20,000 parents, teachers and students in a pro-charter rally at Brooklyn Bridge. As long as Mr. de Blasio was making it personal, she noted in a New York Post op-ed that his son attends a selective, high-performing public high school. "Most parents don't have a public school option that's as good as de Blasio had access to for his son," Ms. Moskowitz wrote. She added that his message to parents in neighborhoods with bad schools was simple: "Drop dead."
In the six weeks since taking office, Mr. de Blasio has energetically begun to make good on his campaign promises. He cut all funding for charter-school construction after 2015. He announced a "moratorium" on putting new charters inside existing schools. He is considering ways to roll back 25 co-locations already approved for the next school year, including 10 Success Academies.
"I have to hope he doesn't understand something . . . that the most at-risk children would be sent back to failing schools," says Ms. Moskowitz, which comes as close to conciliatory as she gets.
Mr. de Blasio has chosen a formidable opponent. The svelte, 49-year-old former history professor drives her staff hard and makes enemies easily. The married mother of three keeps her voice level and chooses words with care, but there's a calm, relentless intensity about her. She favors fashionable dresses and high heels and wears a heart pendant around her neck. Her hard-charging style contrasts with other charter leaders who shun politics, and she makes an inviting union target. So does her salaryÃ¢€”$475,244 in 2011-12Ã¢€”that's more than double the pay for New York's schools chancellor, who runs a system of 1.1 million students.
Asked about the salary, she is briefly stopped, but then pushes back, noting that the organization's board sets her pay, which is "pretty much in keeping" with executive compensation at a New York nonprofit. She has come to expect being clubbed on the subject. "If they didn't have my salary," she says, "they'd find something else."
The Success Academy headquarters in Harlem, up a floor from a French brasserie and around the corner from Bill Clinton's office, resembles a hi-tech startup, full of young people and bright children's paintings on the walls. The fast growth of Success since its first school launched in 2006 has disproved the critics' contention that these schools aren't scalable.
Union leaders dismiss the charters as a boutique effort, with only 4% of the national school populationÃ¢€”yet teachers unions and their political allies also treat charters as an existential threat. Charters hire teachers who don't have to join and pay union dues, and who work outside the traditional system.
The schools are also mushrooming nationwide. Nearly half the public schools in Washington, D.C., and virtually all in New Orleans are charters. One reason the friction in New York is especially bad comes from the city's practice during the Bloomberg years of having charters share space with regular schools. The charters then often proceeded, embarrassingly, to outperform the other schools.
"They do payback at a pretty intense level," Ms. Moskowitz says of the teachers union. "There's a lot of bullying."
Ms. Moskowitz's challenge in the coming years will be showing that the charter movement can survive in this hostile political environment. Mr. de Blasio would seem to have the leverage today. "Political leverage comes in many forms," she replies. "You may disagree, but I think that being on the right side of history is a point of leverage. Performance does matter even if politicians don't always recognize it," and "slowly we're building a constituency of elected officials" in support of educational choice.
To that end, Ms. Moskowitz and other reformers are looking to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for help. Mentioned in Democratic presidential talk, he has shown an eagerness to strengthen his centrist bona fides and clip the wings of the progressive upstart now running New York City. The governor opposes Mayor de Blasio's tax hike on the city's rich to fund the expansion of pre-K and he says charter schools should be included in the plan (it's not clear they will be). Mr. Cuomo also supports merit pay for teachers.
The lobbying efforts have intensified. According to a tally by the online educational journal Chalkbeat, backers of Ms. Moskowitz's Success Academy schools have donated nearly $400,000 to the Cuomo re-election campaign. Ms. Moskowitz's political-action committee, Great Public Schools, has given $65,000 since 2011, according to Chalkbeat.
Earlier this week, Ms. Moskowitz did the rounds in Albany. She didn't want to get drawn out on details, adding that "a legislative solution" may not exist to lift the uncertainty around the future of the city's charter schools. While Mayor de Blasio can't stop the creation of charters, he controls access to the most treasured asset in New York City, real estate.
Some see a possible role for Gov. Cuomo by brokering a compromise on rent. The state could make up for the mayor's slashing of capital expenditures and provide rent support or alternative space for the charters. Mr. de Blasio may not be open to such a deal. And while City Hall reconsiders recent co-location decisions, de Blasio allies in the UFT and their political vehicle, the Working Families Party, are suing to stop the new schools from opening next fall.
Ms. Moskowitz won't concede that charters must pay rent one way or another. Her schools, run by an independent nonprofit, don't charge tuition to students, who are enrolled through a lottery. The state gives charter operators $13,527 per student, less than what it costs to educate a regular public school student.
"I feel so strongly: Why would you make public schools pay rent?" she asks. "Mind you, do you know that there are CBOsÃ¢€”Community Based OrganizationsÃ¢€”that use space in the schools?" Mr. de Blasio isn't going after them. She says the charters take underutilized space in a school system with 200,000 empty seats.
Born in New York, Ms. Moskowitz went through the city's public schools and graduated from Stuyvesant, its star high school. She left for college at Penn and a Ph.D. in history at Johns Hopkins, but gave up the tenure track in academia and returned home and ran for City Council. She was interested in education. "You know, people told me you couldn't be a Democrat and run on the fact that the public school system needed to be fixed. I thought why the hell not. I didn't listen to all those advisers. And I lost." The UFT backed her opponentÃ¢€”as it has in all of her subsequent races.
On a second try, in 1999, Ms. Moskowitz won a council seat representing Manhattan's Upper East Side. Three years later, she took the helm of the council's education committee. A competitor for that chairmanship was a Democratic councilman from Brooklyn, Bill de Blasio.
Ms. Moskowitz says the union had previously controlled the committee and set its agenda, even providing cue cards to members. At a delicate moment for the UFT's talks with City Hall on a new contract, Ms. Moskowitz held hearings on the teachers union's work rules and other restrictions in the contract. That move secured the enmity of Randi Weingarten, who ran the local union then and is now president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"The unions decided to get political retribution and they succeeded," Ms. Moskowitz says. The UFT led the opposition to her failed 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Ms. Moskowitz soon after decided to try to reform in New York another way, starting the inaugural Harlem Success Academy. It was quickly bounced from its shared home at a public school.
"Randi Weingarten came in and said, 'Over my dead body,'" according to Ms. Moskowitz. But a former political sparring partner, then-Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, became an ally. The Bloomberg administration wanted to "flood the zone" in Harlem with alternatives to failing district schools. Half the kids in Harlem today attend charters, among them KIPP, Democracy Prep and Harlem Children's Zone. Across New York, 70,000 students go to a charter.
The other night, at a private loft in Tribeca, Ms. Moskowitz was speaking before a roomful of donors and supporters. The mood was somber. Ms. Moskowitz said that Success Academy's soon-to-be 10,000-strong student network makes it one of the 10 largest school districts in New York state. At the current rate of growth, in seven or eight years, "we'd be the 15th largest school district in America," she said. "But that's obviously highly in doubt."
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.
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