The Nation, November 20-27, 2017
What does it mean for parents and their children to be “consumers” of education?
The worst fate for a conservative is to be dependent on the state. The worst fate for a liberal is to be without opportunity. These two competing ideologies have informed a century of tinkering within American education. Conservatives have had occasional success chipping away at government spending, as President Trump seems poised to do. But it’s liberals like Success Academy founder and chief executive Eva Moskowitz who have managed a more inspired achievement: They’ve redefined the goals of educational policy. Once oriented toward equalizing resources, most school reformers these days worry about equalizing test scores and securing future opportunities for students. “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me,” Moskowitz quotes herself saying in her memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz. “To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”
“Excellence” is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests. Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities. Moskowitz urges those who would “try to explain away our results” to consider Bronx 2, a school in the network whose demographics are similar to nearby PS 55. Yet this is a misleading suggestion, because an overall comparison shows that Success still serves fewer students from both groups and therefore can maintain higher scores.
In a book full of uphill battles, courtroom hearings, and repeated references to her own fiery personality, Moskowitz offers just one perfunctory scene of a young Eva in her imaginary classroom, reprimanding the neighborhood kids for their lack of effort. One of her first dates with her high-school sweetheart, Eric Grannis—who, like Moskowitz, attended the city’s prestigious Stuyvesant High—is characteristically unromantic: The highlight comes when he gets her to ask herself, “If I trusted private industry to make food, why not schools?” (Reader, she married him.)
Moskowitz can be sentimental, but she reserves such moods for pro-charter-school business titans like Michael Bloomberg, who, in her description, descended “like Plato’s philosopher king” from “fathomless wealth and privilege to become ‘Mayor Mike’ and govern over the shadowy affairs of municipal government.” Even here, though, one suspects there may be more mercenary reasons for her admiration: Back in 2002, Bloomberg made the case for mayoral control over the city’s schools at widely covered hearings that Moskowitz initiated in her early role as a member of New York’s City Council. The council lacked the authority to change the law, but it was the first of many shrewd public-relations events that she arranged with the intent of informing the public about the flaws of the education system, and it captured Moskowitz at her best: orchestrating a one-woman performance of “accountability” that would ultimately destroy local control over education—a decades-old victory that had been won by the working-class black families of New York’s Ocean Hill–Brownsville neighborhood.
In 2005, after six years on the City Council, Moskowitz set her sights on the office of Manhattan borough president. She hoped it would serve as the “perfect test case for whether it was possible to stand up to the teachers’ union and live to tell the tale.” Moskowitz lost that race, but she wound up with two job offers, one from the New York chancellor of schools, Joel Klein, and the other from hedge-fund managers John Petry and Joel Greenblatt, who asked her to oversee what would become the first Success Academy, in Harlem.
Their longer-term vision was even bolder: They wanted to figure out how to set up a school that cost no more to run than district schools but achieved far better results, and then replicate that model throughout the country. Cracking that nut, Petry and Greenblatt were convinced, could revolutionize American education.
The first decade of the new millennium proved to be a heady time for anyone with a few million dollars to spare and a burning desire to transform public schools. While most Americans were satisfied with the education that their children were receiving, years of behind-the-scenes advocacy had created a bipartisan consensus among policy-makers that the system was broken and in need of fixing. Extensive research pointed to the deleterious effects of rising child poverty and class segregation on academic achievement. But a new generation of meritocratic elites searched for other causes—ones linked to opportunity, not economic or social inequality, and that might be remedied by innovative solutions honed in the marketplace.
Charter schools, which receive government funding but operate outside the school system and can be publicly or privately owned, were promoted as one of those solutions. It’s a stretch to equate charter schools with tech start-ups, but they borrow from the start-ups’ vocabulary of boldness, efficiency, and passion, and they rely on a similar set of policies: relaxing regulations and injecting competition and consumer choice into the system in order to break the “monopoly” of the public sector and lift the quality of services for all.
As with most start-ups, fund-raising and networking with business leaders have been key to the survival and growth of charter schools—in particular, Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. One of the first items on her agenda after taking the job was to meet with Don Fisher, founder of the Gap, who’d called to congratulate her when she challenged the UFT during contract hearings as a City Council member, and who offered her $1 million on the spot. (In that first school year, Moskowitz made $371,000.)
Years later, when Success Academy board members expressed concern that she was running her employees into the ground, Moskowitz met with Mickey Drexler, of the Gap and J. Crew, and Chuck Strauch, a South Carolina businessman, who helped her “adopt private sector best practices and deal with scaling issues.” In 2011, as Success Academy added schools in Brooklyn, hedge-fund billionaire Dan Loeb donated $3 million to the cause. Along the way, the network also received donations from the Walton Family and Broad foundations, generosity that Moskowitz chalks up to being lucky (the title of her book’s penultimate chapter).
But luck has very little to do with Success Academy’s growth. From the beginning, it was intended as a new, private-sector-inspired model for the American public school. “The underlying drive is to build something that can spread, can be recreated in different cities,” Petry told The New York Times; “otherwise it’s not as meaningful to us.”
As Moskowitz describes it, this model requires “trusting” families to be “critical educational consumers.” And, of course, they are, when they can be—and the more time and money a parent has, the more critical he or she can afford to be. The question is: What does it mean for parents and their children to be “consumers” of education, selecting from an array of options subsidized by billionaire benefactors? Some Success families would find out the hard way.
Unlike in district schools, students at Success Academy are required to keep logs of the hours that their parents have read to them at home. Poor parents, Moskowitz insists, “can support their kids in school, if it is demanded of them.” And if the demands don’t work, shame will. She recalls getting one parent to cooperate by inviting the woman’s mother, who “seemed…more responsible,” to a meeting about her son’s progress. Forget the paternalism of this scene for a second—Moskowitz’s belief that achievement is more about morals than material circumstances hinders her ability to serve families who, regardless of their intentions, simply can’t meet these requirements. Take, for example, the more than 7 million American workers who hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet. When these parents are forced to disenroll their children because they can’t meet the school’s demands for reading time at home, is it really a choice?
And when students with special needs leave because they weren’t given appropriate accommodations by the school, or were suspended for minor infractions—as 13 Success families recently alleged in a federal civil-rights lawsuit—is that a choice? (Moskowitz had also publicly released one child’s school records using the alias “John Doe,” an action that she inexplicably repeats here. If you’re wondering how many times the New York City Department of Education has released a child’s record to the public, the answer is zero.)
Public-school suspensions are not “a useful disciplinary tool” or “really just the equivalent of what at home is called a timeout,” as Moskowitz argues in a chapter called “Extra Credit.” In fact, numerous studies have shown that while suspensions are effective at removing a child from school and relieving frustration among teachers and administrators, they do not improve school safety—and they alienate students. At the state level, children have a constitutionally guaranteed right to a free education. Repeated suspensions, or suspensions lasting 45 days—as yet another Success Academy student with special needs received this past spring—are a violation of that right. They’re also discriminatory: Black kids are far more likely to be suspended than white kids, which is why Martin Luther King Jr. opposed measures giving teachers the right to remove disruptive students from their classrooms.
Sadly, Moskowitz’s reflections on Success Academy’s draconian behavior policies are limited to an ad hominem attack on New York Times reporter Kate Taylor. Instead of engaging with the critical ethical questions raised by Taylor’s reporting—which suggests that there’s a network-wide pattern of shaming and punishing children for underachieving—Moskowitz depicts the Times reporter as a clueless private-school-educated suburbanite who just doesn’t get how urgently poor kids need a world-class education. It’s not that students are systematically being singled out, Moskowitz writes; it’s that “Success isn’t ideal for every child. If we think a child would do better in a different school, whether it’s a specialized program or just a school with a different approach, we’ll tell a parent that, as we should.”
District schools run by the New York City Department of Education do not have the option of sending children with behavioral issues or special needs elsewhere—nor should they, since the United States has consistently affirmed by law that it is the responsibility of public schools to educate all students in the least restrictive environment possible. Because the students at Success Academy are chosen by lottery, and thus their selection appears to be egalitarian, the network advances the idea that district schools could achieve the same high test scores if they’d only adopt practices borrowed from private enterprise. But even charter schools with a lottery system “choose” students indirectly by limiting the services they provide or by instituting demanding requirements for parental involvement. This is an important part of Success Academy’s seeming success, since social and economic disadvantages have more bearing on student performance than do in-school factors. To use the word much loved by the business community, Success’s results simply aren’t “scalable.”
Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and now Donald Trump have all said it: Education “is the civil-rights issue of our time.” But the civil-rights movement was not just a fight over space at a lunch counter, and it certainly wasn’t a struggle for more educational opportunity. Civil-rights activists fought for educational equality as part of a general struggle for social and economic equality. They also believed that educational equality wasn’t possible while other forms of inequality were still rampant. So while Moskowitz’s staff “thought [she] was nuts” for protesting the NAACP when it joined the United Federation of Teachers in a lawsuit that challenged the controversial practice of “co-location”—allowing charter schools like Success to take over space in the facilities of district schools, as happened in Harlem—it’s not surprising that the two organizations would wind up opposing her. And it wasn’t because the NAACP lent its credibility to the UFT, as Moskowitz charges, but because the needs of teachers and students are not intrinsically at odds with each other—in fact, they are usually interconnected.
For reformers like Moskowitz, children from low-income families only need the “opportunity” to attend schools like hers. The extent to which this worldview has become the conventional wisdom among policy-makers is evinced by the fact that Moskowitz, a proud lifelong Democrat, made President Trump’s short list for education secretary. But working parents don’t need someone to save their children from public schools; they need higher wages. They also need job protections—the same protections that Moskowitz has spent her career trying to end for teachers. And they need well-funded public schools, which charter programs help to defund.
Meritocratic education reformers believe that leaders have a right to lead because they are the most talented among us, and that schools—not workplaces—are the appropriate focus of reform efforts, because schools are the natural instrument with which to select a gifted and committed minority from the largest possible pool of future productive adults. They insist that we are all equally entitled to toil and sweat in the pursuit of excellence—and so we do, dutifully checking off standards and filling in the bubbles on Scantron tests from preschool on up. For these reformers, the real enemy isn’t poverty but mediocrity. That’s why it’s wrong, in Moskowitz’s view, for educators to “use poor children’s circumstances as an excuse for failing to teach them.”
But it’s also wrong to peddle the myth that opportunity is out there for the taking, if only students, teachers, and schools are willing to work harder for it. To say that hundreds of children who are educated in district schools “won’t have a fair chance in life because of the inadequate education they are receiving” is to imply that charter-school students will. But the students who graduate from Success Academy face the same economic reality we all do: an economy dominated by low-wage jobs with few protections and devised to benefit many of the same businesses that have donated to and advised Success.
The Education of Eva Moskowitz tells one story about education and inequality: that poor children are suffering in bureaucratic and inadequate public schools and need both demanding educators to toughen them up and wealthy philanthropists to fund those efforts. But there’s another, more compelling story in which corporations and the wealthy contribute to public schools not through the beneficence of their donations, but by paying their fair share in taxes. Because it is businesses that are indebted to schools, not the other way around. That’s not a story you’ll hear from Moskowitz, but it’s the one worth telling.