Life Lessons From A Charter School Founder

Originally published in The New Republic on November 9, 2017.
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Picking up a copy of The Education of Eva Moskowitz, you might expect a bildungsroman. You might expect to learn what really motivates the founder of Success Academy, New York City’s largest charter school network. What experiences formed her? What led to her conviction that public education demands radical change?

For over a decade, Moskowitz has led a well-publicized campaign to disrupt—or dismantle—public education. The first Success Academy charter school opened in 2006, with 165 kids in Harlem. Today the network operates 46 charters across the Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, with 15,500 public school students, 93 percent of whom are black and Latino. Known for its “high expectations” and strict disciplinary practices, the academic outcomes of Success Academy students have indeed been remarkable. In 2017, among those eligible to take state standardized tests, 95 percent scored proficiently in math, and 84 percent scored proficiently in language arts. The comparable figures for New York City Public Schools were 38 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Success Academy has earned a mythic reputation in the nation’s education reform movement. It’s proof, reformers say, that low-income, minority children can perform just as well as white, affluent, suburban kids. “Success Academy’s closest peers are the state’s richest school districts like Jericho, Syosset and Scarsdale,” their website proclaims. Critics, in turn, say that Success Academy’s academic outcomes need to be regarded skeptically: The network’s “high expectations” can prevent certain students from enrolling and can push out weaker students who have enrolled. Success Academy schools also have high suspension rates, and, when children leave, they have refused to backfill open seats. All of this, critics say, can help build a test-taking population that may be less representative than the network purports.

By 2024, Moskowitz aims to operate 100 such schools. Not only has the network’s expansion been inextricably bound up in Moskowitz’s rising profile, but her hard-driving style has become emblematic of the city’s—and the nation’s—school reform movement. What shaped this vision?

Moskowitz’s memoir certainly includes some biographical details—we learn about her grandparents and parents, how she fell in love with her husband, her struggles initially to conceive (she’s now the mother of three children). We learn where Moskowitz went to school, her brief stints in academia and documentary filmmaking, her six years on the New York city council. But these personal asides, which seem largely calculated for humanizing effect, don’t shed much light on Moskowitz’s ideas or goals. Because while Moskowitz evidently set out to tell a personal story, the book quickly and primarily becomes a vehicle for its author to relitigate battles with her enemies—namely teacher unions, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the media.


Moskowitz has, she claims, never gotten a fair hearing in the press. “Rule number one of journalism,” she says, “is that trying to get in between a journalist and a story he wants to tell is like trying to stop a herd of stampeding cattle.” From the start to end of her book, she attacks the media, describing reporters as irresponsible, unprofessional, and out of control. She calls out individual journalists, such as John Merrow—PBS’s education correspondent for over four decades—and Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News. The hostility in her critiques is sometimes startling, but what’s really notable is how Moskowitz swings between insults and praise, sometimes in the same paragraph. At one point, she calls Gonzalez “monomaniacal,” and “smart and industrious,” before lamenting a “sad waste of his talents” all in the space of four sentences.

Do most journalists lie? Not exactly, she admits—but they leave out critical context, and spin facts into preconceived, negative narratives. Moskowitz thinks that the New York Times’s education reporter, Kate Taylor, and her editors—Amy Virshup and Wendell Jamieson—publish critical stories about Success Academy “because they just [don’t] understand the need for it given their backgrounds.” Moskowitz suggests the Times writers may have blind spots, given their prestigious educational credentials. (Moskowitz doesn’t explain how she—a graduate of New York City’s most selective public high school, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University—has overcome the same blindspots herself.)

Moskowitz comes across most sympathetic when describing how upsetting it feels to be misrepresented. She thinks she is “relentlessly vilified” by the press and her political foes. A New York Times article from 2004 outlined her “aggressive, confrontational style” and said her “ambitions exceed her political skills.” In a 2005 editorial, the Times described her as a “smart and driven … expert on education issues” but noted that her “abrasive” attitude made her ill-suited for the political seat she was campaigning for. The gendered overtones of the headlines are clear enough. “Some believed I favored conflict because it would advance my political career,” she writes, in reference to her Success Academy notoriety. “My detractors claimed that my every action was in service of a Machiavellian plot to become mayor.”

However, Moskowitz doesn’t hold back from relentlessly vilifying her own political opponents—which are many. She paints New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as a duplicitous operator, who helps unions mainly to advance his own career. She suggests the NAACP battles with her schools because it receives teacher union money and has many unionized teacher members. Moskowitz even describes American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as “aggressive,” echoing the criticisms that, when lobbed at her, she found unfair.

And for all the education reform rhetoric around trusting and empowering families, Moskowitz depicts parents who protest her plans as having been “shamelessly exploited” and “manipulated” by teacher unions and union-backed groups. (“I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” she said in an interview about school choice earlier this year.) Moskowitz struggles even to offer compliments without punching at the opposition. “She wasn’t a big fan of charter schools,” she writes of the New York assembly’s education committee chair. “But, unlike some of our opponents, she had common sense and a good heart.”


And yet there’s a distinct sense throughout the book that these are yesterday’s battles. Reading the memoir, one gets the impression that its author longs for the heyday of Obama’s early presidency, when more Democratic politicians tiptoed around Wall Street investors, when Joel Klein ran New York City’s education department, when Waiting for Superman was making a splash.

Moskowitz’s treatment of economic disparities is illustrative. In her memoir she urges the public to approach the income inequality issue “delicately in an age when hedge fund managers can work from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection”—a warning to not bite the hand that feeds you, lest Wall Street titans decide to pick up and leave New York. She scolds Bill de Blasio’s “class-warfare rhetoric” as “imprudent and dangerous.”

When it comes to education, she defends her school’s regular use of suspensions—saying they’re equivalent to home time-outs, and help foster safety, community values, and norms. This perspective, too, has fallen out of fashion in recent years. Other statescities, and even some charter networks have worked to reduce reliance on exclusionary school discipline, policies which disproportionately impact poor, black, and Latino students. Moskowitz also dismisses the idea that governments need to spend more on public education, saying “it’s not even clear it would help anyway.” (There’s strong evidence that it does.) Indeed, the biggest barrier to educational success, she tells readers over and over, is not our president, or racial segregation, or the inequitable distribution of resources. No, for Moskowitz the cause has been long clear: It’s teacher unions and their stifling contracts.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Eva Moskowitz does not think very highly of most teachers. Overhauling work rules and job protections for school employees, Moskowitz stresses, is the most critical factor needed to foster academic excellence. She chastises educators for their low expectations and low effort in the classroom. “Most teachers in America could dramatically improve their teaching if they just made every second count,” she writes. She dismisses criticisms that her staff is overworked, even though her own employees responded to a Success Academy-commissioned survey by saying they lacked work-life balance. “[N]obody at Success worked as hard as big-firm lawyers or investment bankers,” Moskowitz asserts. Teaching in her schools, she admits, “wasn’t a nine-to-five,” but she argues “we were seeking to revolutionize urban education and revolutions don’t lend themselves to forty-hour workweeks.” (Leaked documents from Success Academy’s leadership reveal that other senior officials have felt deeply stressed about the network’s high staff turnover, and ambivalent about their CEO’s rapid expansion plans.)

Though charter teachers around the country have started organizing unions for a greater say over their working conditions, Eva Moskowitz does not hide her animus towards the idea. She makes clear that if an educator objects to Success Academy’s pedagogical style, it’s time for them to find a new place to work. “No matter how good a teacher is, if that teacher won’t play as part of the team, you’re better off without her,” she writes.

This “my way or the highway” attitude isn’t reserved exclusively for teachers, either. “Parents who don’t like Success should find a school they do like,” she says. “For someone to enroll their child at Success and insist we change our model is like a person walking into a pizzeria and demanding sushi. If you want sushi, go to a sushi restaurant!” But the analogy doesn’t work. Public schools are democratic institutions where community input is supposed to be valued. Moreover, the whole idea behind the school choice movement is that low-income parents lack quality school options. If they don’t like their local charter, where, exactly, should they turn? It’s a particularly worrying stance since Moskowitz doesn’t treat Success Academy as a bespoke option for a handful of children, but rather sees such schools as the future of urban education.


The last twelve months have proved especially challenging for Moskowitz. Following the 2016 presidential election, she emerged as a prominent ally of Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Some of Success Academy’s largest benefactors have also included Trump donors like John Paulson and Robert Mercer. Moskowitz’s refusal to condemn the administration—even as other education reform leaders were speaking out in protest—cost her greatly within the school reform movement. By August, the president of Democrats for Education Reform—a vocal Trump critic—had resigned from Success Academy’s board. Success’s board chair, billionaire investor Daniel Loeb, was also quoted that month saying that a black state senator who supported teacher unions had “done more damage to people of color than anyone who ever donned a hood.” The timing couldn’t have been worse: Loeb’s comments surfaced just days before the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

After Charlottesville, Moskowitz finally took steps to distance herself from the president. She also publicly criticized Daniel Loeb’s remarks, though defended his right to remain as board chair. That same month Education Next, an education policy journal, released its eleventh annual public opinion poll, finding a dramatic 12-percentage-point drop in support for charter schools between spring 2016 and spring 2017. Support among black and Hispanic respondents also fell 9 and 5 percentage points, respectively. A week later Gallup reported diminishing enthusiasm for charters among Democrats, at 48 percent, down from 61 percent five years earlier.

All this chaos notwithstanding, President Trump, Betsy DeVos and the charter movement’s wavering public support are not subjects explored in The Education of Eva Moskowitz. And in the end, that’s Eva Moskowitz as she wants to be seen: as the center of a story that’s about her victories, and her enemies. When she’s the sole author of that story she can render her cause uncomplicated and unimpeachable. Out in the real world, things are looking more complicated all the time.

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The Charter School Business

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 22, 2015.
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Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker is a longtime expert on charter schools, which are in the crosshairs of a nationwide debate over school performance standards. Recently, Baker, and his colleague Gary Miron, authored a study about the ways in which individuals, companies, and organizations profit through laws and regulations governing the charter school sector. In an interview with The American Prospect, Baker discusses some of the most egregious policy problems, and steps that governments could take to fix them. What follows is an edited transcript.

Rachel Cohen: Your report explores what you call, “The Business of Charter Schooling.” Has this been studied much before?

Bruce Baker: I don’t think it’s been systematically studied because I don’t think there are many unified data sources for this information—it’s more like investigative reporting. I had been repeatedly asked to look into charter school real estate deals and things like that but getting good data just isn’t easy. This was really just a first cut at summarizing the business practices and financial transactions occurring in the charter sector, and what policy structures encourage or permit these things to happen.

RC: You say that current laws and policies governing charters are increasing the privatization of public schooling. What do you mean?

BB: I want to be careful on this issue of ‘privatization’ because I don’t think the intent of our report was to say that public policy is promoting privatization, or that privatization is necessarily bad or good. But there is a long line of case law that carefully parses under what circumstances, and in what settings, certain activities of charter schools are public or private. I’ve coauthored law review articles where we discuss extensively how the charter school industry claims it is “private” when dealing with questions of employee rights, student discipline policies, student handbooks, or contracts, and “public” in other respects.

The idea put forth in our report is that there are certain policy structures, and in some cases lack of policy controls, that are permitting more extensive degrees of privatization in some states. Sometimes it just makes business sense for charter operators, good or bad, or it affords them a way to do something more quickly or cheaply. But I think that some actors in the charter world such as Imagine Schools, White Hat, and Charter Schools USA, are taking advantage of these opportunities in ways that are self-enriching and not in the public interest.

RC: What are some examples?

BB: Sometimes charter providers take actions that are illogical and inefficient from a public policy standpoint, but it might simply be what they have to do to get by. For example, sometimes charter providers create third-party entities, and then pay rent for the school facilities to these new entities. Since charters can’t directly purchase land themselves, these third-party entities allow them to take advantage of tax incentives and to carry revenue-bond debt to purchase property. Unfortunately, because they’re doing this through revenue bonds, they’re getting a crappier interest rate than a district might get and they have to spend a greater part of their operating funds to get facilities. That’s one example of how policy basically backs a charter school into engaging in inefficient activities.

In other cases, charter providers may engage in ethically suspect, but perhaps not illegal, behavior. For example Imagine Schools runs its own property acquisition arm, Schoolhouse Finance. Similarly, Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company, runs Red Apple Inc., and acquires properties to lease them back to the charter school. And in some cases it does actually become illegal. In Kansas City a court ruled that Imagine Schools went over the line with self-dealing, because they overcharged themselves so much in lease payments. [These leases are being paid for with public dollars.]

RC: You note that many public school districts have privatized services for years. What makes what’s happening in the charter sector different?

BB: The modern era of privatized contracted school management started out in the 1990s, as traditional school districts would engage in contracts with private organizations to run schools. But in these cases, the contracted manager works for a local board of education, and is paid through a district budget. So at least at the top level of the organization, the district and the board of education know the details of that private contract.

Whereas if you look at some states, sometimes it may be private entities that actually authorize charter schools, and charters are established through boards of private citizens who then might contract a private company to run their school. The opportunities to shield disclosure, at multiple levels of the hybrid, publicly funded, privately managed and governed system, are dramatically increased in the charter sector.

RC: You note that school districts, many of them starving for cash, have been selling off their public assets—such as school facilities and land—to the charter sector. If one day, the public sours on charter schools, and wants to return to traditional public education—might this not be possible?

BB: Yes, the turnaround would just be too expensive. Maybe 15 years down the line it will be different, but as it stands now, the case for spending sufficiently on a system of public schooling is just not strong. Despite the economic turnaround, most states are still spending less and less on schools.

If you start thinking how much short-run expense would be required to even acquire new urban land to educate students, and then to develop suitable facilities—well, it’s very high. And in some cases, the land and buildings that are being used by charter operators are actually owned by for-profit real estate investment trusts. They’re certainly not going to sell land and buildings back to cities below market value just to support the public good.

I think we do need to be paying more attention to the capital available to educate the children we’re responsible for educating. If we sell it off, and change our minds about charters down the line, we are screwed.

RC: You recommend instating far greater financial reporting requirements. How would this help?

BB: Any entity, private or public, engaged in the delivery of school services should have to report their expenditures. Right now we have to go fishing through IRS 990 forms—if the manager is nonprofit—and it gets very messy. I’d like to see charter financial data reported into a publicly accessible system. Some states do a much better job of this, but you really have to fish for these little pieces of information here and there to try and pull it all together. There’s got to be better accounting for the overlapping financial relationships, so that people can understand how money is being passed between interested parties.

RC: People often talk about charter networks like KIPP, but it seems like there are far bigger networks that slip under the radar. Your research suggests that these networks come with more problems or ethical concerns.

BB: There are certain charter schools we hear about in the media—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Success Academy. And I have my own concerns about the pedagogy and compliance with students’ rights issues at those schools, but when you start looking nationally, what we see is that the dominant players operating charter schools in many states are Imagine, which has found itself in court for self-dealing, White Hat, which was just involved in an Ohio Supreme Court case, National Heritage Academies, Mosaica, Charter Schools USA … and in many states, and nationally in the aggregate, these are much bigger than KIPP or Achievement First, etc.

These networks are not the names we hear about when we hear about the next big study to show how well charters are doing. These are not the networks we hear charter advocates saying we need to expand. Rather we see advocates saying that if we just remove caps and deregulate we’ll see a lot more networks like KIPP. That’s not the case. It hasn’t been the case. And it won’t be the case.

RC: School choice advocates often say that more money is able to “get down to the classroom level” in charter schools, because we do away with large district bureaucracies. This was a common theme in Dale Russakoff’s recent book, The Prize. Is it true?

BB: It’s a complete mischaracterization. It’s one of those cases where the public rhetoric and the research that’s been done really over quite a long period of time are entirely at odds. There are numerous studies that have looked at the administrative overhead expenses of charters and found them to be very high. The vast majority of charters have relatively low total classroom instructional expenses, and studies have consistently found that the proportions spent on administration and other centralized expenses are much higher in charters.

My graduate student, Mark Weber, wrote about the misuse of data in Dale Russakoff’s book.

RC: What recommendations in your report do you expect to garner the most opposition?

I would expect to get significant pushback from the various types of private entities that have enjoyed their current opportunities to shield disclosure.

We also make the case for a centralized, publicly governed authority to manage facilities, or perhaps even all capital resources. Allocating public space to charter operators both reduces the potential for inefficient expense by charter operators and maintains the public’s interest in its public assets.

Some public school advocates, who are fairly anti-charter, have been opposed to the idea of “co-location” which is where a charter and a district school share space within the same building. It has led to some problems, but when I look at the big picture, it’s a hell of a lot better for the public to maintain the public facilities and allow charter operators to use them, rather than sell them off.

I fear this report is going to be seen as us saying all charters are evil, or bad, or money grabbing. What we’re saying is there are good charters but also bad ones, and the bad ones are bigger than you think. Charters represent a significant portion of our public school system system and we’ve got to figure out how to make them work better for the public interest.