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Eva Moskowitz is...

All of the above

Photographed by JEFF RIEDEL

118 | september 2014


chains on the toilet paper, Eva
Moskowitz recalls. Her eyes narrow
and her lips purse at the memory.
I kid you not. Chains! It is 10
in the morning, and Moskowitz
has been working since 4:30 am.
Although shes had only two of her
five or so daily cups of coffee, she
looks terrifyingly alert, dressed ina
crisp navy blue pleated wool skirt
with a matching vest buttoned over
a starched white shirt, her hands
the fingernails painted blue
clasped on the table in front of her
as she holds forth on the sorry state
of Americas public schools. It is the
problem that has engulfed her life
as has her campaign to fix it.
The founder and CEO of Success
Academy Charter Schools, one of
the nations top charter school
groups, Moskowitz is sitting in the
exceedingly tidy principals office of
Successs flagship school in Harlem.
Shes 50 but at five foot two so petite
she could almost pass for a student
were it not for the four-inch burgundy
heels she is wearing. Its a cold day,
but her legs are bare. Moskowitz
rarely wears stockings, even in the
wintera waste of valuable time, she
says, to put them on in the morning.
Her shoulder-length brown hair is
also ready-to-wear, air dried on the
job, held back by the tortoiseshell
glasses perched on her head.


When she discovered the shackled

toilet paperthe chain running through
the cardboard tube and attached to the
dispenserin the bathroom of a public
elementary school where one of her
charters would soon be sharing space,
Moskowitz was angry but not surprised.
To her, it was just another grim sign of
the dysfunction, deep educational
suffering and hopelessness of the
New York City public school system. But
she would not tolerate this at Success.
Oh, no. Not. In. One. Of. Her. Schools.
Moskowitz immediately cornered the
custodian. I told him, We do not chain
our toilet paper, she recalls. And he
said, Well, how do you expect it to stay
there? I said, We will teach our children
that they dont steal the toilet paper,
they dont throw it on the ceiling, they
dont drop it down the toilet. You will
take the chains off. And he said, Lady,
are you sure? We had a whole scuffle.
Moskowitz did liberate the toilet paper
as she has done before, in other schools.
Some of the custodians will say no, she
says. And I tell them, If I have to, I will
Clip. Those. Chains. Myself.
A college professor turned politician,
Moskowitz is now an internationally
known educator who has almost singlehandedly created a mini school system,
a charter network of 32 schools with
9,000 students in four of New York
Citys five boroughs. She is also a leader
and among the most controversial in the

120 | september 2014

countryin a movement that is at the

fiery center of one of the most important
national debates today: what to do about
Americas ailing public schools.


ew would argue that the

American educational system
is in crisis, with its spiraling
costs, crumbling buildings
and students who lag behind
their peers around the world. According
to the most recent Organisation
for Economic Co-operation and
Development data, the U.S. ranks 27th
in math, 20th in science and 17th in
readingbut fifth in the amount of
money spent per pupil. The situation,
experts say, is dire for our countrys
youth and economic future.
Crisis is nowhere in evidence, however,
early on a Wednesday morning at
Moskowitzs Harlem 1, a charter school
whose kindergarten through fourthgrade classes occupy two floors of Public
School 149 in East Harlem. Although it
is by no means the first of the countrys
charter schoolstheyve been around
for more than two decadesHarlem 1
makes an impression. The hallways and
stairwells, painted the school colors of
blue and orange, are filled with silent
children walking in straight lines. They
wear uniforms selected by Moskowitz,
and the younger children are forbidden

to wear shoes with lacestying

them eats up too much time.
No learning opportunities are
squandered. Numbers and
vocabulary words are glued
onto the floors of the hallways.
The classrooms sparkle. There
are new desks, brightly
colored wall-to-wall carpeting,
thousands of books, computers
for the teachers and iPads for
the older childrenmuch of it
paid for with hefty donations
from an army of Wall Street financiers.
This order and abundance is in
sharp, almost painful contrast to the
shabby corridors and classrooms, in
the same building, that are used by the
regular public school students. Only
a few spaces are shared, and one is
the auditorium, where, this morning,
PS149s students are having their class
pictures taken. Children are shouting,
running around the room and tossing
candy wrappers and chip bags on the
floorall of which prompts a Success
staffer to note, with a raised eyebrow,
You would never see our kids do that.
Part of a wave of alternative-schooling
options that have swept across the
country in recent yearsincluding school
vouchers, magnets and for-profit public
schoolscharters are government
funded but privately run. Authorized
by local and state governments, these
schools are given wide latitude in
creating their teaching programs as long
as they meet certain academic standards;
they are also freed from many of the
administrative and hiring rules governing
traditional public schools. Nationwide,
about 5 percent of public school students
attend charter schools, and in New York
City, 6 percent do. This year 14,500
children applied for 2,870 open spots at
Success Academy; those who are now
students won their seats by lottery, as is
the case at most charter schools.
Its easy to see why there is such


Moskowitz closed
her schools for the day and
took students to Albany
to fight the new mayors
proposed budget cuts
last March.

demand. Moskowitzs charters, most of

which are located in the citys poorest
neighborhoods, have performed
spectacularly. In the fall of 2013,
Success Academy students scores on
the controversial new national Common
Core curriculum-based tests, which
stress analytical thinking, were off the
charts, particularly in math, where
they ranked in the states top 1 percent,
beating out even elite suburban schools.
To many parents, educators and
politicians, Moskowitz is a savior: a
brilliant, passionate, daring visionary
who has set out to do nothing less
than fix Americas schools and is
succeeding. With plans to expand her
network to more than 60 charters over
the next five years, she is developing a
model for an alternative educational
system, with a structure that her
supporters hope can be replicated
by other school networks around the
country. She is just audacious, says
Dacia Toll, co-CEO and president of
Achievement First, a network of charter
schools on the East Coast. Eva set
out, unabashedly, to create the best
schools in the country. She didnt just
say best charter schools; she said the
best schools. Like many other charter
leaders, Toll believes Moskowitz has
come up with a winning formula, and
she seeks to learn from it.
Her opponents see a different Eva
Moskowitz. To some of them, she is a
divisive zealot who demonizes public
education to promote her own agenda
which includes, some say, political
ambitions. Critics contend her schools
turn children into little test-taking
machines. They raise the specter of
privatized educationof schools run
according to the preferences, demands
and business principles of wealthy
donors. What some consider her bold
vision, they say, could devastate Americas
public schools, diverting critical taxpayer
money, and the most motivated parents
and students, to charter schoolsand
leaving the most vulnerable students
behind in the old system.
Moskowitz has been called Evil
Moskowitz and likened to both Joseph
McCarthy and Cruella de Vil. The citys
newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, has
long been a vocal critic not only of
charter schools but also of Moskowitz

personally. She has to stop being

tolerated, enabled, supported, he said
during a campaign speech last year.
Indeed, de Blasio began pulling support
and funds from the citys 183 charters
immediately after taking office in
January. The reaction from Moskowitz
was swift. Armed with a $3.6 million war
chest raised in anticipation of fighting
the mayor, she launched a formidable
counterattack. Television and newspaper
ads featured photographs of Success
Academy students and accused the mayor
of destroying their future. Moskowitzs

on what a gorgeous neighborhood that

is, she laughs mirthlessly. It wasnt so
gorgeous when I was growing up, she
snaps. It was very challenging. Her
parents, she says, were always getting
mugged taking her to and from nursery
school. And things only went downhill
from there. The local public elementary
school she attended was notoriously
bad. Even at the age of six or seven, she
says, she could tell that the teachers were
stressed and unhelpful and that many
of her classmates werent learning to
read. When her parents taught in Paris


Wall Street supporters lobbied the mayors
office against the decision to withdraw
support. Thousands of Success Academy
students were pulled from the classroom
and bused to Albanyalong with their
parentsto protest at the state capitol.
Observers who have watched her
do battle all these years saw this as
classic Moskowitz, a woman who, as
one charter school executive puts it,
thrives on conflict. Moskowitz insists
that is far from the truth. I cant stand
it, she says. Its exhausting. Its wearing.
I think the way to put it is: I overcome
conflict, and fear, because of a deep
commitment to children. Id be bullied,
maybe, if children werent at stake. But
my momma-bear instinct kicks in when
people try to do bad things to children.
And the school system on a regular basis
is doing bad things to children.


va Moskowitz would say

that once upon a time, she
was one of those children.
The daughter of Columbia
University professorsa
mathematician father and an arthistorian motherMoskowitz grew
up a block from the campus, on 118th
Street, near Harlem. When I remark

for two years, young Eva was equally

uninspired by the Gallic educational
system. I remember there was an awful
lot of underlining, she says archly.
Back in New York, Moskowitz
was accepted at Stuyvesant, one of
the citys most selective entranceby-exam-only public high schools, a
rigorous institution with four Nobel
Prize winners among its alumni. But it,
too, disappointed her. Stuyvesant was
kind of a factory, Moskowitz says. The
halls were dirty; the girls bathroom
stalls had no doors. The teachers, she
says, got there by seniority, and the
instruction was not particularly good.
Appalled that girls wanting privacy
were expected to use the bathrooms at
the hospital across the street, Moskowitz
organized student protests. She took
pictures of the doorless stalls and got
them published in the school yearbook
over the principals objections. It took
nearly three years, she recalls, but
doors were finally installed. I was
labeled a little bit of a troublemaker,
she says, adding that from a very early
age, I was always compelled to action,
to try and do something about the
challenges around me.
Moskowitz majored in American
history at the University of Pennsylvania,
then got her PhD at Johns Hopkins. She
became a college professor, with stints at

Vanderbilt University and Columbia. But

after a few years, she says, she found
the life of the mind a little bit narrow.
Moskowitz continued to teach while
her husband, Eric Grannis, whom she
met at Stuyvesant, went to law school,
but she found herself obsessing about
the worlds problems. She lasered in on
issues for which she believed there were
accessible solutionsproblems that she
could do something about. Among those
were finding a better way to collect the
citys garbage, improving its parks and,
above all, because in New York it was
a huge problem, fixing the schools.
In 1997, Moskowitz ran for a seat
on New Yorks City Council. She
lostbut in 1999 she ran again and
won, becoming the representative
of a district on Manhattans wealthy
Upper East Side, where she then lived
with Grannis and their son, Culver.
That job was the launchpad for what
would become a relentless, headlinemaking, often acrimonious crusade for
the reform of New York Citys schools.
If Moskowitz is admired as an
educator today, it is largely thanks to
her tenure on the City Council, where
she first encountered de Blasio, then
a fellow council member. Much of
her expertise is founded on what she
taught herself on that jobparticularly
as chairwoman of the councils powerful,
high-profile education committee. The
ever-thorough Moskowitz set out to
visit all 1,400 city public schools. She
managed to call on only 270, but much
as she does now at Success Academy,
she observed classroom teaching,

learned a lot from her visits. Even when

I went to god-awful schools where, like,
you just wanted to cry, there was always
something good going on . . . Youd go into
the buildings where there would be no
learning but you had a custodian who
was trying to make the place beautiful.
Or youd see a teacher who was wildly
talented in this sea of mediocrity.
To better understand why things
had deteriorated so badly, Moskowitz
held more than 100 hearings, during
which she interrogated school
officials on art programs, on literacy,
on sports. But most explosive were
her 2003 hearings on the school
systems union contracts. Union
members testifiedanonymouslyon
such issues as the arcane work rules
for custodians and teachers and a
tenure and seniority system that in
their view rewarded bad educators.
Moskowitz was especially tough on
the teachers union, which she still
characterizes as one of the central
evils of the public school system.
That was the third rail of politics,
says Jenny Sedlis, who worked with
Moskowitz on the City Council and
helped her start Success Academy
before becoming executive director
of the pro-charter education reform
group StudentsFirstNY. If you hoped
to have a political future, you didnt
upset the teachers union.
Nevertheless, two years later, in 2005,
Moskowitz announced she was running
for Manhattan borough president, a job
widely regarded in New York as a step
in the quest for the mayors seatand


grilled custodians as well as teachers
and principals, monitored cleanliness
and, yes, checked the bathrooms.
Many of her school visits were
disturbing: She says she saw kids cursing
and having food fights in the lunchrooms
and teachers who seemed sort of
checked out. Nonetheless, she says she

122 | september 2014

the teachers union struck back. It

publicly opposed her candidacy and
threw its significant financial and
political resources against her. Ads
referred to her as a union buster. Still,
Moskowitz was stunned when she lost
the Democratic primary. I was the
odds-on favorite, she says. The union

promised to take me out, and they spent

over a million dollars to do so.
Moskowitz seemed unaware of how
polarizing she had become. Even now,
she insists it is not she but the issue of
education that is so divisive. Ten years
from now, she says, people are going
to look back and say, What was all the
noise about? Science five days a week?
Great schools? What is the big deal?'
In other words, by then everyone will
see that she was right all along.


fter losing the election,

Moskowitz was mulling over
a number of job offers when
her husband suggested she
meet with two hedge fund
managers, Joel Greenblatt and John
Petry, who had just filed paperwork with
the New York Board of Regents to start
a charter school. Greenblatt had been
financing programs at a traditional public
school in Queens but, like other wealthy
school benefactors these days, saw
charters as a way to have more control
over what his money was used for. When
they met, Greenblatt recalls, he and Petry
were so ridiculously impressed with
her, they immediately asked Moskowitz
to create their charter school and run
the entire operation. She set up her first
office in a Starbucks. Seven months
later, in August 2006, the first Success
Academy school opened its doors.
Virtually every aspect of Success has
been overseen by Moskowitzfrom
the school colors to the curriculum to
the kind of snails used in kindergarten
science experiments. She has worked
intensely over the years to develop
this model, studying various curricula,
talking to literacy experts, visiting
schools around the country, constantly
fine-tuning the programs. Moskowitzs
schools emphasize inquiry based
or project based learning, rooted
in the belief that children learn best
by doing. On the day of our visit, her
third graders are studying folk tales
and they dont just read them; they
write them, she says. Science begins
in kindergarten. Chess is taught to
all. The school day is nine hours long,
with weekly Saturday sessions for
catch-up work and test reviews. To

keep the students expectations high,

they are referred to as scholars and
grouped according to the year they
will graduate from college and the
name of their homeroom teachers
alma materfor example, Yale 2028,
Michigan State 2029, Brown 2027.
Moskowitzs two younger children
are among these scholars: Dillon,
11, won the lottery, and Hannah, 10,
entered under the sibling preference
available to all families. Culver, 15,
is in private school. Success did not
yet have a high school when he was
a freshman; its first high school is set
to open for the fall 2014 term.
Ironically, one of the things to which
Moskowitz attributes the downfall of
the public school system in the U.S. is
second-wave feminism and its effect on
the teaching force. When most careers
were closed to women, before the 1960s,
you had this captive labor pool, she
explains. People like me could not
run for office, so we all went into
teaching. You had this highly educated
workforce that couldnt become doctors
or lawyers or writers. That meant that
you had an unbelievable teaching force
in the New York City school system. I
would never suggest that we go back
to the days when women didnt have
these opportunities, but I think its one
of these unintended consequences.



here is nothing more

political than education,
Sedlis recalls her former
boss warning her shortly
before they founded
Success. And Moskowitzs
years on the City Council made
her politically astute. After
starting Success, she pressed
Mayor Michael Bloomberg s
administration to give her space
in schools that were being closed
for poor performance. She was
also aggressive in getting funds
from the city, including a reported
$875,000 for a playground. And
she got away with behavior that
rankled people. When a public
school did not clear space for her
on time, she ordered workers to

take the furnishings out of the areas

designated for Successthe desks, the
file cabinetsand dump them into the
gym. All of which contributed to her
opponents perception of Moskowitz
and her charters as pushy, entitled,
unjustifiably enriched.
Charters in New York colocatei.e.,
share spacewith traditional, or district,
public schools, and they get that space
rent-free. These savings, valued at about
$2,000 per student, bring taxpayer
funding to about 85percent of what
the government spends per student in
traditional public schools. Point this
out to Moskowitz, and shell spit fire:
Charters, she says sharply, are public
schools and therefore should receive
exactly the same amount of public
money. And she has fought for the
financial arrangements that make her
network possible. When she pulled
students out of school for the protest
trip to Albany last winter, it wasnt the
first time shed taken them out of the
classroom for a political demonstration.
Last October, 20,000 charter students
and their parents marched across
the Brooklyn Bridge to protest then
candidate de Blasios threat to charge
rent to the charter schools. Soon after
taking office, when he pulled back
$210million that had been earmarked
for charters and withdrew a pledge of




space for three of Moskowitzs schools,

she responded with a public relations
and lobbying blitz, enlisted help from
the governor of New York and sued
the city. The mayor was put on the
defensive. As the New York Times
noted, de Blasio had succeeded at
the devilishly difficult task of making
a martyr out of Ms. Moskowitz.
But if Moskowitz has to fight for
public funding, she has proved a
genius at winning private donations,
which have been key to her networks
growth. In 2013, Success, a not-forprofit 501(c)(3) corporation, received
$23million in private money. From
June 2011 to June 2012, the chain
spent $1.2million on marketing, media
relations and advocacyrare luxuries
for most public schools. Much of that
money Moskowitz raised herself,
through her network of admirers on
Wall Street. Last year the chairman of
Success Academies, the high-profile
New York hedge fund manager Dan
Loeb, donated at least $3 million
to Success. And the organization
reportedly raised $7.75 million in a
single night this past April, at a gala
fund-raising dinner in her honor.
Last year Moskowitz earned about
$475,000more than twice the salary
of New York Citys schools chancellor,
who runs a continued on page 142







Eva Moskowitz continued from page 123

system with 1,700 schools, 1.1 million
students and an operating budget of
nearly $25 billion. A little less than
half of Moskowitzs compensation is
paid by Success Academy; the rest was
covered by Joel Greenblatt, through
a foundation he runs that is partly
funded by other hedge fund managers,
a number of whom are Success
Academy board members. Greenblatt
says Moskowitz earns every penny of
her compensation.
Echoing some of the common
criticisms of charter schools, Michael
Mulgrew, president of New York Citys
United Federation of Teachers, says
that Moskowitz and her wealthy
funders are seeking to take public
schools out of public control. He
also claims that Success earns higher
test scores by eliminating the more
troublesome students.
Excelling at a place like Success
even pursuing a slot there in the first
placerequires a motivated student
and family. Mulgrew asserts that
Success enrolls fewer students with
high special-education needs and
fewer English-language learners than
comparable district schools do and that
it suspends students at a higher rate.
These claims are false, says
Moskowitz, who dismisses as ridiculous the allegation that Success culls
the best students by removing the worst.
Very few of the childrenfewer than
1 percent, she saysend up needing
an alternative setting, meaning they
could not be educated at Success.
Those students need to transfer, she
says, not because of academics, but
because 32 kids in a class emotionally
overwhelms them. There are kids who
have severe emotional needs, and even
those kids we try keeping for a very
long time. Be that as it may, Success
Academy is not the universal fix for
the declining educational system of
New York City: There are simply not
enough seats for every child to benefit
from Moskowitzs innovations and her
benefactors largesse. And that bothers
critics such as Mayor de Blasio, who
said in March, The answer is not to
save a few of our children only. The
answer is not to find an escape route
that some can follow and others cant.

142 | september 2014

The answer is to fix the entire system.

As a public school veteran myself,
albeit one from a suburban school
system in Maryland, and as someone
who has seen that public schools can
work, I put this question to Moskowitz
one morning. Public schools are such
an important part of the American
vision, so critical to a democracy, is it
right to simply abandon them?
It is exactly this kind of nostalgic
attachment to a particular myth that
is preventing us from solving the
problems, she replies. Todays reality
doesnt look like your vision. Most of
the public schools in New York, she
says, are 90 percent black or brown, or
90 percent white. The majority, frankly,
are incredibly segregated and getting
unbelievably poor results. There are
many, many hundreds of schools I
would not send my own children to.
And I cant personally and morally
have a double standard.
Last spring, de Blasio relented and gave
Success the space hed withdrawn
at least partly because new state
legislation essentially forced him to.
He even made a conciliatory speech.
But theres nothing conciliatory about
Moskowitz. She calls the mayor a
former operative of the teachers
union and says that at best, weve
prevented the mayor from acting
on his hostility in the most dramatic,
consequential way for children.
What if Moskowitz herself were
mayor? She considered running in 2013
but decided it wasnt the right time. She
says she still might do so, but right now
shes not ready to leave Success. She
says her interest in the job stems from
her profound belief in public service.
Others have said it is a sign of her
intense ambition, with some of the bare
knuckling designed as much to boost
her political profile as to help children.
Her ambition is hard to downplay, but
one thing that cannot be doubted is
her intense commitment to children.
I hate to see kids suffering, she says. I
cannot even watch movies where there
is violence against children or any kind
of scene where children are humiliated.
I cannot take it.

For now, Moskowitz is focused on

bringing her brand of education to
schools around the country, charter or
traditional, she says. But can Successs
success truly be replicated across the
U.S.? There are several theories about
the causes of the nations education
problems. Funding shortages. Poverty.
Unions, which many agree need to
loosen work rules that block innovation
and protect bad teachers. Even the
fraying of cultural and social mores.
Moskowitz herself notes that parents
are less respectful of schools and
teachers than they used to be. And
although charters are currently seen
by many as a panacea, they are not by
definition better schools. One national
study by Stanford University found
little overall statistical difference in
performance between charters and
district schools, but in Arizona, for
example, charter students score lower
on standardized tests. In Michigan,
according to the Detroit Free Press,
charters have been plagued by poor
performance and wasteful spending.
Moskowitz seems to have created a
remarkable model for educational
excellence, but leadership is critical, and
some question whether Success would
continue to dazzle if Moskowitz were
not at the helm obsessing, demanding,
fighting, captivating and enraging
people. She is, perhaps, sui generisand
maybe, at the end of the day, not quite as
tough as her opponents believe.
Moskowitz was the final speaker
at a conference Success held last
winter for charter school officials
from around the country. She spoke
for an hour, answering questions about
teaching techniques, the challenges
she faced in setting up Success and the
challenges she continues to face as she
constantly retools her program in an
attempt to create the perfect school,
the perfect haven, for children. At
the end, the moderator thanked her,
and the audience broke out in a long
and loud ovation. Moskowitz moved
quickly from the podium to the side of
the room, where she turned her head
and wiped away tears.
SUZANNA ANDREWS is a contributing
editor at More.