When House Speaker Paul Ryan arrived on a Harlem block earlier this month, the boyish-looking Wisconsinite was greeted by a crowd of irate New Yorkers brandishing homemade signs. One called him a “monster.” Another suggested he had “blood on his hands.”
“How do you sleep at night?” several protesters shouted, alluding to the House’s recent vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
It was a predictable greeting from a historically black neighborhood in a city that went overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.
What wasn’t so predictable was that the pro-life, social conservative was there to tour a school run by one of the city’s most high-profile Democrats—Eva Moskowitz, the CEO and founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, one of the fastest-growing charter school chains in the country. Moskowitz, who voted for Clinton, is a former council member and an admirer of progressive-icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Raised by two lefty professors, she has made it her life’s work to lift poor children of color out of poverty, often portraying herself as a civil rights activist.
Responding to critics who insisted she had no business entertaining the Republican speaker of the House, Moskowitz told me that she had not invited him. “He reached out to our offices and asked if he could come.” And in a letter to her mostly black and Latino parents, some of whom expressed deep reservations about the visitor, she wrote, “We live in a complex and divided time, with many issues needing thoughtful debate and positive change.”
For many that was hardly the point.
Ryan’s visit was yet another indicator that, over the past decade, the outspoken educator turned savvy CEO has willingly plunged herself and her now 41 high-performing charter schools into the national education debate about how poor students should learn, becoming, oddly enough, the premier symbol of what progressive, anti-reform educators abhor about the reform movement—and what the conservative right has come to love.
Success Academy schools are brightly lit and compulsively orderly. Students wear orange and blue uniforms, get a lot of homework and follow a series of strict—sometimes unforgiving—rules. There are classroom math drills, timed writing exercises and frequent tests even in the early grades. Moskowitz has created for her students, the majority of whom are poor and black or Latino, the kind of schools that many of the city’s upper middle class parents would find too severe for their own children. And for this reason, many deem them not only off-putting, but deeply offensive—and in some instances, downright racist. Moskowitz and her team are fierce in pushing back against those allegations.
One can’t argue with the results: The network’s test scores are off the charts. Students at the schools excel at national chess tournaments. And the network’s elementary school science program is one of the absolute best in the city. It is this academic excellence coupled with Moskowitz’s tough-love approach that has played so nicely into conservative ideology about how poor children can—and should—lift themselves out of poverty: through hard work, exacting guidelines that build discipline and clear consequences for misbehavior.
Indeed, after his visit, Ryan gushed about the school. “They have a lot to be proud of, and these remarkable kids are getting a great education,” he said in a statement. “That’s what matters—giving every kid a fair shot at the American Dream.”
Ever since the 1983 release of “A Nation At Risk,” a landmark education report issued by a special commission convened by President Ronald Reagan, which claimed America’s public schools were failing miserably, educators, business tycoons and thought leaders have puzzled over how to fix them. Much of the conversation has focused on underperforming students distracted by the chaotic nature of poverty and whether schools unconstrained by government bureaucracy and union contracts might better serve them. Hence the proliferation of charters, which are publicly funded, privately run schools whose teachers are generally non-unionized.
But equally important, for educators, has been the thorny issue of how specifically to deal with these students. Should schools seek to address the root causes of their educational problems—with health services and adult education programs—or should they concern themselves solely with academic matters? Those who support the broader approach —generally progressives—say schools ought to function as neighborhood hubs, offering a wide array of amenities that disadvantaged kids aren’t getting elsewhere. Otherwise they can’t learn. Others—generally conservatives—insist that when schools try to do too much, educators lose their focus and their true purpose.
This divide doesn’t necessarily line up against party lines, though. A new breed of moderate Democrats who came up during the Clinton years have tended to think more like moderate Republicans when it comes to school reform. They are intrigued by the civil rights aspect of the school reform mission and fed up with government solutions. Many Republicans feel that way, too, though they tend to see school reform in more economic terms—as a way to get families out of poverty, off of public assistance and taking care of themselves.
Moskowitz joined that complicated conversation when she opened her first charter school in Harlem in 2006, and her network has grown at a rapacious clip ever since. She now has 41 schools in four boroughs and serves 14,000 students. As a liberal in a city with more than half a million children living below the poverty line, one might have expected her to embrace the more holistic ideology. She did not. She has been laser-focused instead on developing young, serious-minded scholars. What she offers families by way of services is the opportunity to support their children’s academic and intellectual prowess.
And while Moskowitz has said that she would like to build enough charter schools that all her students can attend ones in their neighborhoods, she rejects the notion that students ought to be compelled to stay connected to a neighborhood school if it has inferior academics. She encourages the same mobility on the weekends. Many of her students spend countless hours away from their neighborhoods on soccer fields and also at chess and debate tournaments, where they mingle with the city’s most ambitious children, many of them upper middle class and white.
For some populist Democrats, this approach can be off-putting. “It’s offensive,” Hawk Newsome, the president of Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, told me during a discussion about Moskowitz and her schools. “We think black people should not run away or detach themselves from their communities.”
But Mike Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank that supports school choice, says that for many conservatives—conservatives like Speaker Ryan—a push up and out of poor neighborhoods is the whole point. “And her schools embody that ethos.”
“Rather than talk about government handouts or what government can do,” Petrilli says, “the point is, what government can do is support people who are taking responsibly for their own lives and for their own children. And this is a great example of that.”
For Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and an outspoken school-choice advocate, it’s even simpler than that. “One thing conservatives like about charters is that parents choose the schools they want for their children. If you don’t like a school, you don’t have to send your child there.”
Other charter chains around the country—like Uncommon Schools, which opened its first school in 1997 in Newark—have taken the same academic-first approach that Moskowitz does, insisting that what matters most is teaching students to learn to read and write well—no matter what the neighborhood—so they can escape the ills of poverty on their own. But it has been Moskowitz who has catapulted to national fame, partially because of her spirited and often pugnacious personality. She frequently lambasts American public schools and sometimes private schools, too. And she is an open foe of New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, who says adding services such as mental health clinics and adult educational programs to low-performing schools is a “central element” of his plans to “reimagine the city’s school system.”
But mostly it has been her extraordinary outcomes that have landed her in the limelight. It’s a rare charter network that performs on Success Academy’s level. Last year, 94 percent of Moskowitz’s students were at or above grade level on New York state’s annual math exam, and 82 percent were at or above grade level in English. Across the state, a mere 39 percent were at or above grade level in math and 38 percent were at or above grade level in English. Her schools do not just outperform schools in poor neighborhoods, but schools in some of the state’s wealthiest suburbs.
Petrilli believes it has been Moskowitz’s outsize success that has so irked progressive, anti-reform educators, who are prone to dislike charters because they see them as anti-union and a threat to the nation’s traditional public school system. “Sometimes I think they hate high-performing charters more than low-performing ones,” he says.
There’s also the fact that Moskowitz has achieved her success by roundly rejecting a lot of progressive groupthink that has permeated so many American classrooms. While many progressive public school educators shun correcting grammar and spelling mistakes, lest they discourage young writers from their process, Moskowitz has spoken glowingly about grammar lessons and has boasted that she is no enemy of the red pen. She has a children’s literature director who selects only the highest quality books, rejecting the more laissez-faire idea that low-income students ought to read whatever compels them.
Test prep, spurned by many of the nation’s most progressive schools, is also an integral part of Moskowitz’s curriculum. And while principals in schools have tacitly—and sometimes openly—encouraged parents to opt out of state exams, insisting they are meaningless, she has prohibited her parents from doing so, insisting that knowing how to ace a test is no small skill for a student headed to college.
Moskowitz’s elementary schools adhere to a discipline code that is strict, and sometimes even draconian. Parents and teachers say that the vibe inside her schools can be joyous. There are field trips, block play in the early grades, creative projects and a rich art program. But some have complained they can also be gloomy and tense, with students visibly stressed. Student progress is posted in the early grades, for all to see. There is detention for students who aren’t putting in enough effort. A student who is late for a morning chess activity might be asked to sit it out. A student who commits a uniform infraction might get a call home. A 2015 report by PBS found a high number of kindergarten suspensions.
Allegations have long surfaced that students who can’t handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere are weeded out. A “Got to Go” list that surfaced at one of the schools in 2015, added to the impression that administrators identify students they want to see gone. It’s a sort of survival-of-the-fittest mentality that strikes liberal detractors as cruel, but can fit nicely with conservative ideology around merit and beliefs that those who fall through the cracks do so because they refuse to play by the rules. Diane Ravitch, the nation’s premier foe of charter school growth and an outspoken liberal, says, “If people are sensitive to children’s feelings they find that kind of discipline overly harsh.” (Moskowitz has frequently said that her schools do not push students out, but she has also acknowledged that they are not the right fit for every child.)
For many progressives, the most troubling aspect of the schools relates to race. Poor students of color are expected to defer to teachers, who are often white, and who demand total obedience. One such teacher was videotaped, a few years ago, tearing up a first grader’s work while she berated the young minority student. The incident created a firestorm when the New York Times got a hold of the video, last year, and wrote about the incident as part of a series on the schools.
Moskowitz has long maintained that the incident in question was an anomaly. And many parents at the school spoke out, defending the teacher. Still, these reports and others have led some liberals to brandish the schools as tacitly racist. Moskowitz points to Success schools that have attracted white families—one of the 41 is more than 50 percent white—as a sign that this is not the case. In an email, Ann Powell, Moskowitz’s executive vice president of public affairs and communications shot back at the critics: “It is racist for people to claim that African American and Latino families are sending their children to our schools because they don’t know or care about ‘harsh discipline’ or are somehow ignorant about what good education looks like.”
Many conservatives and pro-reform liberals would seem to agree. They insist that robust discipline is a necessary price to pay for entry into the American middle class, and many parents know that. According to Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, “Conservatives look at discipline and say: ‘This is right. I’m not just going to say this is fine. I’m going to say this is good.’”
Further, Eden says: “There is something unfair and imperialistic about progressives assuming that other parents don’t want orderly classrooms for their kids, just because it is something they don’t want.”
Living at the center of this heated debate, Moskowitz is as close to a bipartisan reformer as it gets. She dismisses her critics while relentlessly pursuing supporters, potential donors and politicians who can further her cause, no matter what side of the aisle they are on. She receives public money to run her schools, but also relies on private dollars from some of the country’s wealthiest hedge fund executives and philanthropists.
Many of her supporters are prominent donors to the Democratic Party—moderate, business-minded centrists like hedge fund manager John Petry and legendary investor Joel Greenblatt. Conservatives back her schools, too: Trump ally John Paulson gave $8.5 million to her network, and retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson recently donated $25 million. (Robertson supported libertarian Gary Johnson in the November presidential election.)
Moskowitz is not the only charter operator who has brought together these typically warring factions. But while many of her colleagues have played down their connections to ultra conservative donors, she has remained adamant that supporters of all stripes and sizes are welcome to write her a check and champion the growth of her schools.
Moskowitz has also earned enemies on the left—and friends on the right—by taking on longtime allies of the Democratic Party such as the New York City teacher’s union; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which last year called for a moratorium on charters; and principals at low-performing New York City public schools. She accuses these schools of being so strapped by government regulations and the demands of unions that they are ill-serving the poor kids of color who need them the most. And she has starved many of them by getting approval to open her schools inside their buildings, dwindling their space and their student bodies. Moskowitz has also lobbied hard in Albany against state government restraints on her growth and fought city oversight of her classrooms. As the chair of the city council’s education committee, she spent hours berating union members on the protections, stipulations and rights awarded to them in their contracts.
Moskowitz’s union-busting image has apparently endeared her to President Trump, a vocal basher of big government who seriously considered her for the nation’s top education post before appointing billionaire Betsy DeVos, the former head of the Michigan Republican Party and a staunch supporter of school choice. DeVos and Moskowitz may appear strikingly different, but in large part, they share the same enemies.
In the months after Trump was elected, many charter operators and school reform advocates sought to openly distance themselves from the president and his administration, worried about alienating moderate donors. Not Moskowitz. She told her staff in a post-election letter that she was “upset” by the election results, but told reporters the day after she met with the president over the education secretary job that she was disturbed that people seemed to be “rooting for Trump’s failure.”
Some commentators believe she isn’t distancing herself from the administration because she wants to ensure that Washington’s education priorities don’t veer from her own. “One possibility is that Moskowitz is interested in making sure that charters continue to get congressional support, including from Republicans who might otherwise be susceptible to the notion that vouchers are the more daring and more market-oriented avenue for reform,” offers Jeffrey R. Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Trump has made his admiration for school vouchers—essentially coupons that allow parents to funnel public school dollars into private or parochial schools—well known. So has DeVos, who has spent much of her adult life, and millions of dollars, pushing vouchers as her preferred school reform tactic. That’s a sharp departure from the Obama administration, which supported charter growth, but not voucher programs because they would expand school choice past the public school system.
Of course, voucher schools and charter schools are not mutually exclusive. And the administration appears to like both right now. Last Tuesday, the president released a budget plan that would include a $167 million increase for charter schools, cheering charter supporters. He is also suggesting a $250 million private school choice program. Eventually, it will be up to Congress to decide what shape federal education funding ultimately takes. But it’s worth noting that charter programs are probably the most politically feasible, as voucher initiatives tend to evoke the most ire, particularly in certain pockets of the country.
Though the bulk of her funding is local, Moskowitz clearly has a point of view when it comes to federal policy. In an interview earlier this month, she said she thinks vouchers are not the “broadest answer to the education crisis.” And anyway, she has expansion plans of her own to concern herself with: six new schools this summer, with plans to eventually reach 100. All that will require money and political support, and may well confront her with regulations she will need to thwart.
“I have found that the regulatory apparatus inhibits teaching and learning in a pretty profound way,” she told me. Sounds like something Paul Ryan would agree with.