Special ed: Charter-school champ Eva Moskowitz makes a play for brownstone New York

Eva Moskowitz testified before a congressional committe on education. ()
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Kyle Spencer

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This winter, orange fliers advertising a K-8 charter school planned for Bedford-Stuyvesant began appearing on the doorsteps of apartment buildings and houses in the upmarket neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. I live in Cobble Hill, and have two children already enrolled in a top-rated public elementary school around the corner from my house. In the week before the charter’s April 1 enrollment deadline, I received six fliers, making a total of 12.

The mailers were the work of Eva Moskowitz, the famously combative charter-school champion and former city councilmember who is now C.E.O. of the Success Charter Network.

The paper blitz is a familiar tactic for Moskowitz, who has been blanketing neighborhoods annually for the past few years in a much publicized effort to build an education empire. She’s had great success generating interest this way, in part because the neighborhoods she has targeted in the past have housed the city's poorest-performing public schools. Parents in those neighborhoods have typically responded to her marketing by scrambling madly for the relatively few slots being offered. (Moskowitz's strategy was detailed in Madeleine Sackler’s documentary The Lottery, and was the subject of a congratulatory policy paper released by the Democrats for Education Reform, the influential political action committee run by former Daily News reporter Joe Williams.)

But there’s something significantly different about this latest round of outreach from Moskowitz, who currently runs seven schools in Harlem and the Bronx, all of which fit neatly into the popularly understood charter-school mandate of providing options to low-income families zoned for poor-performing public schools. This time, she’s going after the middle class.

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Moskowitz has spent a total of $800,000 on advertising for the school she's planning for Bed-Stuy, much of it on outreach to middle-class families—who live near and sometimes not so near the school—as well as on a Success Charter Network school that is scheduled to open this fall on the Upper West Side on the new Brandeis High School campus.

During a recent interview at one of her Harlem schools, Moskowitz bridled at the idea that her latest projects represent a departure from her previous ones, or that they are any less well aligned with the mission of charter schools.

“I’ve never believed the charter movement was exclusively for socially and economically disadvantaged kids,” she told me.

Moskowitz said that long ago, in her pre-Council days, she applied to the city to start a charter school on the Upper East Side, only to withdraw the application when her political career took off.

“It was incredibly radical back then,” she said. “You can live on a posh street and be zoned for a very terrible school.”

The Upper West Side “has failing schools,” she said, adding that despite vocal opposition to her new charter, she received between “700-800 applicants” for the 188 available spots.

“I didn’t design schools for poor kids,” Moskowitz said, finally. “I’m designing schools to be world-class.”

THIS WOULD SEEM TO BE A TIME OF UNPRECEDENTED opportunity for the charter-school movement, and for Moskowitz, to expand in New York. Overcrowding is at an all-time high in many parts of the city, to the point where some kindergarteners are being turned down by their zoned schools. There is a charter-friendly administration in City Hall, which is being strongly encouraged by a charter-friendly White House.

Last year, after a protracted fight in which the teachers' lobby was ultimately outmatched by the combined lobbying efforts of Michael Bloomberg and the charter-school movement, the legislature in Albany increased the state’s cap on the number of charter schools from 200 to 460. New York currently has 125 charter schools, with a large cluster of them in Harlem and in the South Bronx, educating a total of 38,000 students. They number only 4 percent of the city's schools. (Compare that to D.C.’s 40 percent.)

This means that there’s room for charters to proliferate, which they’re going to need to do to show themselves to be viable over the long term to their financial backers, who quite explicitly see what’s going on as a fight for survival with traditional public schools. This goes for individual charter organizations, too: they have to grow in order to demonstrate sustainability. According to Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, proponents of charter schools were placing an ever-increasing emphasis “on multiple organizations opening multiple schools,” in part due to pressure from donors who see themselves as “catalysts, not banks.”

Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research center at the University of Washington, says a lot of networks have faced economy-of-scale challenges that few predicted. The chains have expanded only to discover that they have some of the same money-sapping bureaucratic issues that the public schools have.

“[Operators] are really ambitious and entrepreneurial and they think they can do anything,” Lake said. “But they’ve hit some bumps in the road.”

Moskowitz has said that it is her goal to open and operate 40 schools.

IT HAS BY NO MEANS BEEN AN EVEN FIGHT BETWEEN charter schools and their traditional public counterparts.

Despite the fact that they depend on public money to operate, charters are exempt from many state and local regulations, so they can create their own curriculum and hire as they please. They are also in a position to be selective about student admissions, unlike zoned public schools, on top of the fact that the parents who vie for spots in the charter self-select, as a group, for relatively high levels of engagement with their children’s education.

Then there’s the funding. The New York City Charter School Center calculates that charters receive $3,017 less per student than traditional public schools, which sounds like a positive statistic. But that figure applies to charters that are not housed in public school buildings. This is an important distinction because last year, according to figures released by the New York City Independent Budget Office, charters housed in public school buildings (that’s two thirds of them) actually received $649 more per pupil in public support than traditional public schools. (In 2009-2010, that meant $16,660 per charter pupil, and $16,011 for each public pupil.)

The free space, free maintenance and free security services that charters receive when they are housed in existing public schools—the perks that are often so resented by those very public schools—are a prerequisite for the Moskowitz model to function as it does. According to NewSchools Venture Fund director and Success Charter board member Jim Peyser, without the deal on rent-free space, the network would be forced to stop expanding.

The challenge for the charters, under these circumstances, isn’t so much to compete with public schools, but to satisfy their nonprofit boards, whose members directly or indirectly generate much of the non-public money for these schools, and to impress the public. This is because a lot of what the charters need to flourish—like that free space in public-school buildings and their per-pupil allotment of public money, which many charter operators say is still too low—will require the city and the state to remain hospitable to them even after Bloomberg, their hard-charging champion, has left office.

“This is ultimately a political question and ultimately about public support,” Peyser told me.

HARLEM SUCCESS ACADEMY 2 WAS LAUNCHED WITH about 175 kindergarten and first-grade students. According to an independent auditor’s report filed with the Charter Schools Institute, the school received more than $1 million in contributions and private grants and $19,000 in donated legal services for the school’s first year, starting in the middle of March 2008, when operators began building up the school, and finishing at the end of June 2009, when the school year ended. But in addition to that money, the school received $2.3 million in state and local per-pupil operating revenue, $490,000 in federal grants, and $150,000 in state and city grants. So for that school year, for that school, taxpayers contributed approximately $3 million.

This cost was a trifling detail within the broader narrative about what Moskowitz was doing, because the school represented salvation for children whose zoned institutions were failing them. It was created, like her other schools at the time, to serve New York families lacking good education options.

That doesn’t quite apply to the schools Moskowitz is trying to open now. Whatever legitimate dissatisfactions higher-income parents in New York may have with their children’s education, they are usually not thought to be suffering from a lack of options. Armed with their Macbooks and Clara Hemphill's guide books, New York’s mid- to upper-income parents pick between zoned schools, magnet schools, and gifted programs for their children. And for those who can afford it, private school can also be in the mix.

The middle-class parents I socialize with often gripe about the occasional out-to-lunch teacher, the less-than-stellar art programs, or the lack of foreign-language offerings in the public schools. A lot of them complain that the average city classroom has too many kids. But middle-class parents don’t generally feel abandoned by the system. And the sale to them is necessarily different.

So as Moskowitz and her team of recruiters spent countless Saturday mornings and chilly weeknights this winter hosting meet-and-greets in Brooklyn libraries, community centers and fancy Upper West Side apartments, they were presenting themselves as the answer to a problem many of the targeted parents didn’t know they had. Moskowitz’s most talked-about event, a wine-and-cheese informational written up in The New York Times, attracted a crowd that included bankers and lawyers, eager to see what the charter movement might have to offer them, and to hear what the city's traditional public schools—which Moskowitz has referred to in the past as “tenth-rate”—didn’t.

Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3’s Community Education Council and one of her most frequently quoted critics, complained: “Moskowitz doesn’t just say: Come to our schools!’ She says, ‘Come to our schools because the other schools suck.’”

MOSKOWITZ, WHO GREW UP IN MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS and then the Upper East Side, is not warm or personable. Even her colleagues and supporters do not make any bones about this. As one of them recently told me, her constant combativeness is just part of the package: it’s “Eva being Eva.” But one thing the 47-year-old knows how to do is build support for her cause.

I witnessed this first-hand at an informational session in March for one of her schools. That morning a crowd of mostly black and Latino parents and grandparents listened with rapt attention as she launched into her trademark pitch.

Her kindergarteners do 135 experiments a year, she told them. Her test scores are incredible. Her school days are long. Her writing program is top-notch. There’s lots of math and very little tolerance for any sort of shenanigans. Her time as a public official trying to deal with the education crisis, most notably on the City Council education committee, compelled her to take her own action. While on the Council, she kept trying to make things better and kept “falling down the rabbit hole.”

“Whatever you think rigor looks like,” she told the rapt crowd, reiterating her oft-repeated philosophy on hard work and commitment, “you should go up a few notches.”

She said she doesn’t benchmark her schools against hapless public schools, but against the most prestigious private institutions in the city: The Brearley School, The Dalton School, Trinity School.

At one point, she wagged her finger at the audience, explaining what it would mean for them to have a kid at one of her schools. “You think you can sleep in late on Saturdays … no, no, no!”

The crowd was pleased, but Moskowitz didn’t linger. After her presentation, she was led out of the room by a handler, a guy in a dark suit who, I later found out, works for Education Reform Now, the pro-charter advocacy group chaired by former schools chancellor Joel Klein.

Education Reform Now is closely related to the PAC, Democrats for Education Reform, run by Joe Williams. He has reportedly raised more than $17 million over the last three years, by recruiting support from some of the richest hedge-fund executives in the city like Whitney Tilson, John Petry and Joel Greenblatt. These same people support Moskowitz’s schools, and her goals. Williams did not return phone call for this story. But in a 2010 letter to his supporters, he wrote that D-FER aimed “to dominate education policy-making for years to come.”

Moskowitz speaks about this shared mission in equally dramatic terms.

“We’ve got the house on fire,” she told me. “I’m opening schools as fast as I can.”

WHY DID MOSKOWITZ GET INTO THE BUSINESS OF RUNNING CHARTER schools? Her answer to that question has undergone a subtle evolution.

Her role as a charter operator began in 2006 after her unsuccessful run against Scott Stringer for borough president. She came under withering attack during the campaign from the teachers' union, which was exacting some measure of revenge for the regular roastings Moskowitz had given union members as head of the Council's education committee. She got clobbered. Soon after losing, she took up with hedge funders and began building her now-famous network.

Her rhetoric back then was focused on a general belief in school choice, a desire to help low-income children, and a deep-seated worry about the education crisis.

Lately, her message has been directed less at parents who need rescuing from an education crisis than at parents who first need to be made aware of one. In an interview in February with a niche outlet called Ed News Colorado, she said: "I think many middle-class and upper middle-class parents think their schools are better than they are …their schools are very complacent.”

The schools Moskowitz has established and operated up to this point have been built to address the very real sense that what's wanted in the city's most troubled neighborhoods is a stiff dose of discipline and parochial-school rigor. Her schools mandate uniforms and permit very little misbehavior. Her schools also promise to churn out students who produce high scores on the state’s math and reading tests, and they deliver. Without futzing around with intellectually messy questions about the root causes of the alarming rate of test failure among poor kids or the opportunity cost of "teaching to the test," Moskowitz has directed her teachers to maintain a laser-like focus on test scores, with dramatic, highly marketable results.

Since she opened her first school in 2006, her numbers have rivaled those of students in New York’s wealthiest suburbs. In 2010, 87 percent of Moskowitz’s students tested proficient on the state’s standardized reading test. And 95 percent of them were proficient in math. All of her fourth graders passed the state science exam, and 90 percent did so with advanced proficiency.

While advocates will call these results nothing short of amazing, which they are, detractors say Moskowitz's charters are achieving these results in part by “cherry-picking”— leaving the neediest and poorest-equipped students to their ill-performing public schools while turning a relatively small number of better-equipped children into model students and standardized-test aces.

There’s something to that. Take the 2008-2009 school-year statistics provided by the New York State schools accountability reports for Moskowitz’s first School, Harlem Success 1, and for P.S. 149, the Harlem elementary school that has reluctantly shared space with the Moskowitz school for the last four years. At P.S. 149, 68 percent of the students were eligible for free lunch; that year, 10 percent had a limited understanding of English and 67 percent of special-ed students required extensive time in special-ed classes every day.* At the Harlem Success Academy school, only half the students required free lunch, only two percent had a limited understanding of English, and only 35 percent of the special-ed students required extensive special ed.

This has only added to the P.R. problem presented by space-sharing, which sets up a tangible contrast between students struggling in a low-performing school with diminishing funding and dirty bathrooms and their heavily endowed charter-school neighbors, toting Kindles in their backpacks and enjoying perks provided to them by some of the richest people in America.

While Moskowitz has repeatedly acknowledged that the situation is far from ideal, she can seem indifferent to the plight of the “other kids” and sometimes even a little hostile toward them, like she did during a fracas earlier this year over a small soccer field that she had built in the schoolyard outside a Harlem building she shares with P.S. 149. Someone had put up a sign that read: “Charter Schools Are Like Hitler Tyrents Trying To Take What’s Not Thiers!” A photo accompanying a Daily News story about the sign showed Moskowitz clutching a coffee and looking not disturbed or saddened, but totally livid.

This sort of imagery matters. Insofar as her expansion plans will require her to generate support for her schools in new neighborhoods, Moskowitz now finds herself in the familiar position of a local politician positioning herself for a run for higher office by appealing to a much broader constituency than she ever has before.

Put another way: She already has a highly devoted “base,” in the form of the parents whose children currently attend her schools. (Liane Barnes Jackson, a mother of two Success Charter kids, told me that what she has with Moskowitz is like a marriage, and said, “I love her to death.”) But in order to expand, she’s going to have to start winning over swing voters.

The power of her core parent-supporters has not been lost on Moskowitz, who sends two of her own kids to Harlem Success 2, and third to NEST+m, a magnet school on the Lower East Side. She has enlisted Success parents as campaign volunteers for her cause, busing them to school board meetings and encouraging them to speak out in support of other charters in her network. In other words, she’s long seen the parents of the kids she’s educating as political assets. Some refer to her as “Our Obama.”

“Eva is an unbelievable advocate for her students and their parents," Michelle Kedem, whose firm On-Ramps does education-related recruiting, said. "She has a core team of people who follow her everywhere.”

But beyond the base, the appeal of Moskowitzism has proven to have its limits. Last year, D-FER put thousands of dollars into local legislative primaries in support of charter-friendly challengers against charter-skeptical incumbents. It turned out badly for them.

“They backed a bunch of pro-charter candidates and they were creamed,” said Gotbaum, happily. He also said: “Until charters are accepted city-wide, their agenda is going to fall flat.”

I asked Success Charter board member Jim Peyser if that election had been a wake-up call. He said it had been more of a confirmation of what they already knew: “This was an uphill battle,” he said.

A FEW DAYS BEFORE I WAS SCHEDULED to tour Success Harlem 2, Moskowitz’s best-known school, Jim Devor, the president of the Community Education Council in my district, told me that he didn’t think Moskowitz’s model would ever gain widespread appeal among my Brooklyn neighbors.

“The Eva pedagogical model is a very conservative one—probably most analogous to a parochial school—which is very different than the touchy-feely progressive model approach you find at a lot of brownstone Brooklyn schools,” he said. “She would use the word ‘rigorous.’ I would use the word ‘rigid.’ I think there are some parents in your neighborhood who will go for it. But not that many. Generally speaking, middle-class parents don’t go in for uniforms or extended hours. Parochial schools dried up because middle-class parents voted with their feet by sending their kids to public schools.”

I’d taken Devor’s comments at face value. But because I don’t always agree with other parents in my neighborhood about school issues, I figured that even if he was right, I might well be the exception. So I was in a particularly receptive state of mind as I entered Harlem Success 2 for a tour from Jenny Sedlis, Moskowitz’s cheerful 30-something director of external affairs.

The first thing I noticed when I walked onto the school’s first floor was how bright and airy it felt. It was neat, clean and organized. Blue knapsacks hung out of cubbies that flanked the walls. Book bins were in abundance. Inspiring sayings were posted everywhere: “Books Are The Food of The Soul.”

Much had been made in the press about Moskowitz’s obsession with school transition efficiencies, and how important it was to her that everything run like clockwork. The Village Voice had recently run a story on how quiet the Moskowitz schools were, and how her students spent weeks at the beginning of the year practicing how to line up, how to listen, how to sit quietly.

When I watched students line up, they seemed perfectly poised, except that there seemed to be on almost every line one kid who was reprimanded for straying. A few times I noted the tone the teacher was using. I found it jarring. Despite all my tough talk about liking a strict place (I sometimes complain that my kids' school is too loosey-goosey) I wasn’t totally sure this was preferable.

The school has been touted for its incredible science program, which isn’t surprising: As a councilmember, the meager science programming was something for which Moskowitz bashed public schools. A group of kindergarteners, who reportedly do one experiment a day, discussed whether a snail preferred light or dark spaces. The students were creating a hypothesis they would later test, part of a curriculum Moskowitz borrowed from Brearley. I was impressed. My own kids do science once or twice a week. I had science envy.

Next, Sedlis ushered me into a dedicated room for chess. The room was filled with instructional signage: “How To Make a Queen Sandwich;” “What A Check is.” The kids were doing chess worksheets. Chess is very modish among school reformers, a way to teach what Moskowitz’s brochures call “higher-order thinking.”

We toured one classroom where students were reading and discussing Amelia Bedelia, another where they were reading Clementine, and yet another where they were reading a children’s Time supplement, which my son had brought home the other day. There were Smart Boards—a sort of digital whiteboard—in every classroom; the lower grades at my kids’ school don’t have much access to them. But otherwise I was surprised that so far what I’d seen wasn’t that much different from what my kids get at their school, except the science bit, which had wowed me, and the dedicated chess room, which struck me as a surprising use of time and resources.

In one of the classrooms, I noticed students doing a knee-to-knee, shoulder-to-shoulder move during a lesson, which Sedlis said was a way to teach them to communicate with each other and then to the teacher. They don’t know when they’re called upon, whether the teacher’s question will be about what they have said to their partner or what their partner has said to them. I recalled being in a classroom once with one of my kids during circle time and watching this very same practice. It had been a more relaxed version, but the same idea. Later, when I asked a teacher I know about it, she said it was a pretty common practice. It’s from Bank Street or Teachers College, she told me, or one of those places.

Walking into the second-grade classroom where students were doing math, I braced myself. I gripe endlessly about the math being taught at my children’s school: it’s TERC math, which entails a surprising amount of drawing. I’ve long wished they did Singapore math, which has a reputation for being more rigorous. I’d pretty much assumed that Singapore was what Moskowitz taught. But then I looked down and saw a student scribbling on a sheet that looked a lot like one my second-grader had recently brought home. Sedlis said they did teach TERC there but that they’d tweaked the curriculum, because they found that the pacing wasn’t ideal.

Eventually, we walked into a classroom I suspect Sedlis wished we’d avoided. The teacher was talking to a bunch of third graders about what you need to do to “slam the exam,” and discussing with students how to deal with the mixed emotions they have about testing. Students were asked to talk to each other about what to do when they grow tired. I couldn’t tell if this emotional coaching was about growing tired during the exam or during test-prep.

Moskowitz has fielded complaints that she’s better at preparing students for tests than she is at preparing them for life. One of the most persuasive defenses I’d heard of testing came from Joel Klein, who said that kids needed to know what a quadratic equation** was, and that testing them was the only surefire way to make sure they did. That argument made a lot of sense to me. But standing here watching this made me wonder how this coaching fit into anything that had to do with learning.

I took notes and Sedlis eyed them nervously. I felt bad for her, bad for the teacher and bad for the kids.

I FINALLY GOT TO SIT DOWN WITH MOSKOWITZ at a table in a makeshift conference room a little while later. She was wearing a dark suit, a red blouse, and suede high heels. I’d already told two of Eva’s public-relations people and Sedlis that my story was going to be about Moskowitz’s schools and the long-term prospects of the charter movement. My first question to Moskowitz was about her schools and the long-term prospects of the charter movement. Moskowitz glared at me and told me that my question didn’t seem to have anything to do with what my story was about.

For the next 40 or so minutes she talked, mostly in sound bites, some of which I’d heard during her Harlem informational a few weeks earlier. She talked about how challenging what she was doing could be, how important it was to “be humble.”

“Schools can ebb and flow,” she said. “It can be phenomenal one day and then you hit fractions and it falls apart.”

About her space wars, she said, “The union opposition remains incredibly intense.”

At one point, Moskowitz started talking about “fun,” and how important it was to make the day “really compelling” for children. She talked for a long time on this topic, explaining, among other things, that she puts blocks in kindergarten classes because children like blocks.

“Kids find play naturally compelling,” she said.

I was finding it difficult to get her to talk about what I was there to discuss: the growth of her charter schools, her increasing interest in middle-class Brooklyn and Manhattan families, the challenges she was going to face in diversifying the model. At some point, she asked me if what she was giving me was helpful. I told her it wasn’t.

Finally, I told her what Gotbaum and Devor had said about her attempts to recruit middle-class parents, and that they didn’t think her model was going to sell.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Moskowitz said, citing the large number of applicants for spots in the Upper West Side school.

She disagreed with the idea that her schools were unlikely to appeal to liberal Brooklynites with lots of other schooling options.

"What we're doing here is highly progressive," Moskowitz said.

The uniforms, she said, can give the wrong impression.

*language about percentages clarified

**corrected from the original: Klein had referred to a right triangle and a quadratic equation.

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