Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz tells Moneyish about facing off Bill de Blasio on public school reform and being an ‘abrasive’ woman in the public eye
Eva Moskowitz chose to do and to teach.
Shortly after winning the presidency last year, Donald Trump spoke to Moskowitz, the chief executive of New York-based Success Academy, a major charter school network, about running the Department of Education. It was only the second time the 53-year-old Manhattan native had met Trump—the first time was to reject a campaign contribution—but she shot him down.
“There’s a lot of paralysis in D.C. and a fair amount of gridlock [so] I didn’t consider taking the job,” she tells Moneyish. “Education is mostly a state and local matter and my focus is on reimagining public education, one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.”
Trump picked the controversial Betsy DeVos instead, but Moskowitz is no stranger to the spotlight herself. Raised in Harlem and educated at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins, the Democrat was a history professor before a near-decade long stint on the New York City Council. But Moskowitz is best known for running Success Academy, a network of independently-run public schools that educates over 15,000 children in NYC.
From that perch, she’s waged a highly public war on everything from teacher accountability to space for charters in public buildings with the likes of mayor Bill de Blasio and teacher unionist Randi Weingarten, who famously called charters a “polite cousin of segregation.” Much of that is detailed in “The Education of Eva Moskowitz,” a part memoir, part pro-charter-school polemic out this week.
Many of the facts are in Moskowitz’s favor. According to the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan city agency, 56.3% of students in New York charter schools are African-American, a traditionally underprivileged group, compared to 25.5% in “traditional” public schools. Yet 48% of charter school students were considered proficient in math in the 2015-16 school year, versus 36.5% for the “traditional” institutions (Moskowitz’s organization is the highest performing charter, per IBO stats.) And Success Academy had a waitlist of 14,000 for the current school year.
What is it about charters? Moskowitz acknowledges that they’re not magic potions—the system championed in Michigan by DeVos is the subject of much scrutiny—but they offer a lot of potential. Perhaps the most important thing is accountability, and at charter schools, it’s much easier to reward high-performers and get rid of the poor. “You need rich content and also very strong leadership,” she says. “Being a principal is one of the hardest jobs in America. When you go into states where there are poor schools, it’s because that strong support system is missing.”
Not everyone is on board. De Blasio, who promised to limit charter schools, scuttled three Success Academy schools in 2014 and Moskowitz considered challenging him in this year’s mayoral contest. “Four times as many African American and Hispanic students pass tests at our schools as in city schools,” she says. “That tells one it’s a matter of politics and not about the kids.”
The mayor, who once sat on the city council education committee Moskowitz chaired, has fired back. In his first mayoral campaign, he declared that “Eva Moskowitz cannot continue to have the run of the place…Just because someone is politically connected and has a lot of money behind them, they don’t tell the public school system what to do.” (Success Academy’s chair is hedge funder Dan Loeb.) For her part, Moskowitz says she has no “personal animus against him, but I’m not one to be bullied by political figures. I will continue to stand up to him.”
De Blasio’s not the only one who finds Moskowitz difficult. In her memoir, she recalls a New York Times op-ed endorsing her opponent for Manhattan borough president in 2005 because she was too “abrasive.” (As with Trump, the Gray Lady is a favorite target of Moskowitz, who dedicates a book chapter against its alleged wrongs.) “You can’t be a woman public figure without” such criticism, she says. “There’s often a [different] standard for men and women, which is unfortunate, but you deal with it by knowing what your motivations are. I’m very clear it’s about kids and learning.”
Moskowitz also differs from the status quo when it comes to the attention paid to subjects like the arts and sport. While there’s much talk of pushing students into the STEM fields, she thinks it’s a mistake to neglect so-called “softer” skills. “We need to focus on all endeavors of critical and creative thinking,” she says. “My own experience is reflective of that—as a college professor, I would teach history of technology but also American literature. A broad education sets kids up for success in life.”
As she prepares to send the first class to attend Success Academy off to college next year, Moskowitz is largely optimistic. That’s partly because of faith that the generation of Americans currently becoming parents and establishing themselves in public life will demand more of educators. “I love millennials,” she declares. “I find that they have an enthusiasm for kids and are eager to learn new things. They bring a real social justice perspective to work.”
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