Eva Moskowitz, well-paid queen of the Success Academy charter chain, just won the Savas Award from the Reason Foundation. The award is given in honor of City University of New York Presidential Professor and privatization research pioneer E.S. "Steve" Savas, and it recognizes public-private partnership, though since what we're really honoring is privatization, these are partnerships in the same way that mugging is a criminal-pedestrian partnership.
Apparently one of the prizes that comes with the Savas Award is a very friendly and gentle video interview, and ReasonTV delivered an interview for Moskowitz that is softer than a baby's bottom. I have watched it so that you don't have to and, really, unless you have a tub of blood pressure medicine handy, you probably should not watch this.
The Warm Fuzzy Open
As opposed to a cold open. The piece begins with nice close shots of Success Academy students working hard and studying intensely. The voice-over notes that the halls are quiet and orderly, and it calls the SA schools both successful and controversial.
We toss out a graph that shows just how mightily the school beats other NYC schools on the Big Standardized Test, and you will be not so surprised that these charts are not accompanied by charts showing how Success Academy has a huge attrition rate. The video also does not mention that SA doesn't replace the many students that leave. In other words, SA students may very well get good results on the BS Tests-- but any public school could achieve the same results by pushing out all but its best test-takers.
The voice-over tells us the story of how city councilwoman Moskowitz "sank her political career by speaking out about" how unions were stifling schools (insert stock footage of Randi Weingarten, looking, I guess, amazed at the brave councilwoman calling her on her evil union baloney). So she started a charter, which became a chain, which is "often hailed as a shining example" of what school choice is achieved. Which is a great construction. I myself am often hailed as an educational genius and the inventor of modern rap music. Hey-- you don't know I'm not often hailed as that. You weren't there.
So anyway, Reason Foundation gave her this swell award, and then sat down with her to chat. Here we go!
One of the core ideas of a charter school is that it's partially insulated from politics...?
The interviewer does that sort of vocal lift that turns any string of words into a question. Moskowitz is game.
"Oh. Well," she scoffs. That's probably not reality. There's a cutaway to the interviewer as the next bit starts, a telltale sign of a frankenquote where we cut away from the speaker to cover slicing up the quote, so I think she probably didn't launch into this next part as abruptly as the video makes it seem. But anyway-- the unions have been after her constantly-- the unions keep suing her, the unions blockaded the entrance to her schools, the mayor "threw out" three of her schools. These are all the vicious political crosses that she must bear.
Political adventures that Moskowitz does not mention include closing her schools and busing her students, parents and staff to Albany to lobby on behalf of her charter empire. Nor does she mention that she got Governor Cuomo and the legislature to do an end run around Mayor DeBlasio in order to get her charters what they wanted. She might also have mentioned that she also spent time in court making sure the state could not audit her.
But her basic assertion is true-- it would be silly to pretend that Success Academy is insulated from politics.
Over the past months, SA has been "rocked by a barrage of negative stories" (see, it's the stories that are negative, and not the information that they revealed about SA). Cue the clip of the teacher berating a six year old.
That video was "a low point." It was 'surreptitiously recorded" by a "former" employee. Do we understand yet that this was just an evil hatchet job, and not a concerned teacher's aide finally deciding to record what she saw all too often?
Cut to press conference with outraged Moskowitz refusing to stand by while the NYT uses "selective video" and "gotcha" tactics. I am trying to imagine a context in which the video wouldn't be upsetting, but I'm coming up blank.
"You said that the paper had failed to give Success Academy a fair shake," says the interviewer, who then lobs this across the plate-- "Why would the New York Times not be giving Success Academy a fair shake?"
It's a softball, but Moskowitz goes after it with a chainsaw. Sure, the teacher did those things that are in the video, but it seems like a double standard because in New York City schools "you have teachers engaging in physical abuse of students, teachers engaged in sexual abuse of students, and yet somehow that was not front page New York Times." It's okay to be bad as long as someone out there is worse.
So why was this person making the video in the first place?
Because she was angry at the teacher. But she didn't come forward with the video right away, so she must not have been that concerned about the child.
The video was troubling, but it has forced us to have an honest conversation about what kinds of practices are ineffective. Not all teachers see the guardrails, and now we have an example of what not to do.
So, I guess it's great that the video was released, because otherwise Success Academy would be continuing to use bad practices, or would have all sorts of loose cannon teachers going off in classrooms, or nobody in the charter chain would have been talking about how best to teach children? The video was bad and unfair, but it has saved SA from continuing to suck? Honestly, there's a level of pretzel logic here that is hard to track.
Cut to tearful principal mea culpa for the Got To Go list. That major controversy was last October.
Moskowitz totally spanked that guy before the story even leaked, and they responded "incredibly quickly, incredibly swiftly, and incredibly thoughtfully."
But then in January, parents filed a complaint with the USED claiming SA pushed their kids, who had some severe challenges, right out the door.
Oh, here comes Robert Pondiscio, and I feel bad, because I kind of like Pondiscio, but what he says here is bunk. "Let's just say the worst allegations are true. She is counseling out the hardest to teach, she's creating this poor man's private school. Why is that a bad thing?"
Well, it's a bad thing first of all because it shows that her supposed miraculous success is an easily-replicated lie. Any school that's allowed to dump its worst students can get great results with the ones they choose to keep. It's also a bad thing because that is not how US public school works. The vision for US public school is to educate all students, no matter how challenging. That, of course, is why it would be a poor man's private school. Private. And if we are going to admit that Success Academy is really a private school, then next we must ask why it makes sense to give it public tax dollars-- in particular when those public tax dollars come at the expense of the students who are not chosen, but who are dumped into the public school system.
So that's why it's a bad thing. But he's going to push on with an argument more often made by Mike Petrilli (they're both Fordham Institute guys)-- that charters should be for strivers, and that the strivers deserve a disruption-free school. There's some merit in this argument, but you can't have it both ways-- you can't have a system where you say, "okay, we're going to collect all the students we consider strivers over here and we're going to leave all the disruptors in those schools over there" AND at the same time say, "Well, these striver schools are very successful and if the disruptor schools can't be equally successful, those schools are failing and need to have budgets slashed and resources removed." You can't have both systems at once, and you also can't pretend that a system in which the schools get to choose which strivers they prefer to keep-- you cannot pretend that such a system is any sort of school choice system. It's not.
The interviewer has now dropped all pretense of objectivity and asks Moskowitz the same thing-- why can't you go ahead and cream?
Moskowitz agrees that it's just another version of choosing schools by choosing your upscale apartment, ignoring that these are opposite things. There is a fundamental difference between parental choice and having the choosing done by the school. But she plows on, with the interviewer chiming in with "absolutely" and "you go girl" and "hallelujah" (okay, maybe not all of those), saying that selectivity can be all about income.
The interviewer points out that rich neighborhoods have schools with high scores and "everybody knows" that demographics are a huge factor in BS Test scores. Why can't poor brown kids at SA have a classroom free of disruptors, and I'm not sure, but I think we just suggested that rich kids aren't disruptive, which will come as news to many teachers in this country.
But after all that philosophical discussion, Moskowitz is going to go with "We are following the rules of random lottery," and I think I would have respected her more if she had just taken Pondiscio's line on this instead of pretending that the lottery, with its forms and bureaucratic hoops, doesn't do its own job of filtering. And of course, we've just sort of sidled away from the issue of the Got To Go list and the oft-reported SA practice of pushing some students out.
Interviewer asks "are you working within the confines of that [lottery] rule" nudge nudge wink wink and Moskowitz isn't having it. "Yes, yes we are."
But Interview Man is excited about creaming. Couldn't some of these other methods of selectivity serve your kids? "I mean, it's like one of the pieties of education that every classroom can serve every kid, but actually a really disruptive kid steals time and attention away from the other kids in that class" because, you know, kids are either good or bad and they are good or bad 24/7, and so the bad ones should just be, I don't know, sent to an island somewhere. And I feel Interview Man has some strong emotions around this issue, like he would have gotten that A in algebra, but damn Chris Grumblefoot kept giving him noogies and monopolizing the teachers.
And oh my God, it has come to this-- Moskowitz is actually saying something valid, which is that the anti-disruptor approach can lead to "pernicious effects" where the school is in the business of deciding which kids can and can't succeed. And she says that her mission is not to be a gifted and talented program, but to serve a broad range of students. "Our mission is to be an old-fashioned public school where you serve the community," she says. Which is a really, really great line, but not as great as if it were reflected in the reality of actual Success Academy schools.
More noise about applications and how many SA gets-- but noting that this year, for the first time, application numbers fell. Does that have anything to do with some of the negative press?
Moskowitz thinks not. Different neighborhoods are different. Things have gone up and down. Interview Man pushes-- seeing the video, reading the stories, that wasn't it? That's not her impression. Parents mostly come from other parents, and her parents think SA is swell. Do those parents like the more disciplined, orderly, safer environment than they might get at their district school? Moskowitz redirects-- most of our parents find then schools incredibly joyful.
Cue clip from Slam the Exam pep rally. Kids cheer and get trophies because BS Tests are important.
Illuminating quote-- Moskowitz at pep rally saying "The difference between successful people and less successful people is that they don't shut down-- they power through."
So what's the idea behind the (not at all opt outy) pep rally?
Why should we just have pep rallies for sports. Why not celebrate growth? Which, again, sounds swell except that we're talking about the BS Tests which don't measure much except test taking scores, and which do not benefit the students nearly as much as those scores benefit Success Academy marketing.
Interview Man says that he doesn't get the sense of kids who feel ostracized for doing well in school, and again I can't help wondering if he's working through some issues of his own.
Now let's move on to Moskowitz's political aspirations. Because she's evolving in how she sees herself politically.
In 2014, she called herself a liberal because "I think liberals care about the little guy. Liberals care about social justice." I wonder how many little guys you can take care of with a half-million dollar salary.
But at the beginning of the month when she was receiving this award, she had evolved into something else. She had once called herself an FDR liberal who believed in big government, but she didn't like it so much when she met it up close and personal. Which- really? Because I'm thinking that being able to meet the governor and the legislators and get their help in writing laws, setting caps, and raising money to keep Success Academy on top seems to have worked out pretty well for Moskowitz. If she is trying to play the little guy, stomped under the heel of big government, she should stop spending so much time using political insider plays to make big government work for her and tilt the table for her.
Nope- now she rather thinks she's a libertarian. Well, mostly only when it comes to school choice. She doesn't know enough about those other areas. Interview Man is disappointed.
Does she still want to be the mayor of NYC? Yes, she might run in the future, and Interview Man seems to be gently suggesting that if she wants to be mayor, she'll need to know about things other than education policy. So she bounces back and hey, she totally sat on some committees when she was on city council, so, yeah, she knows stuff.
Can we expect 100 schools within the decade?
Yes. She won't promise she'll be leading SA a decade from now, but for the foreseeable future, sure. It's an "enormous project" and it will take "tremendous leadership" to get it done and she has an "incredibly talented team of people"
She does not anticipate moving to other cities-- "there's a lot of lousy schools right here in New York."
Oh, and only now do I see that Interview Man has a name-- Jim Epstein, who has been at Reason since 2010, and before that was an award-winning producer at NYC's PBS station.
So there you have it
Well, there you have some of it. Epstein decided to completely skip over the big flap over John Merrow's story about suspending five year olds at SA and Moskowitz's subsequent publishing of private student data to defend herself. Nor do we get into the steady drip-drip-drip of former SA teachers and their unsettling stories from inside. Nor the question of why exactly Moskowitz is paid a half-million when she oversees only 11,000 or so students. And we never did get to talking about the attrition rate or no-backfill policy at all.
So I guess what we actually have is a nice puff piece in which Moskowitz gets to say her piece without being challenged on any of her policies or practices, and without having to deal with any of those nasty unions, reporters, or government officials who have just made it so hard to be Eva.