The Most Polarizing Education Reformer in New York City

In a new memoir, Eva Moskowitz recounts how her revered—and notorious—Success Academy charter-school network came to be.

Eva Moskowitz looks sternly into the distance in a hallway in one of Success Academy's Harlem schools.
Benjamin Lowy / Getty

Back in 2004, The New York Times described Eva Moskowitz as having “sharp elbows.” At the time, Moskowitz represented Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side on New York’s City Council and had, according to the Times profile, emerged as one of the council’s most influential members. Those sharp elbows helped her get things done, whether that meant replacing plastic newspaper racks with stylish fiberglass ones or taking on powerful teachers’ unions in the name of improving the city’s beleaguered public schools. They inevitably also positioned her as a perennial antagonist—someone who inspires so much vitriol in her opponents that she has, for more than a decade, contended with an endless list of disparaging labels. Public-school teachers, for example, got in the habit of calling her “Evil Moskowitz.”

Now that Moskowitz is the founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter-school network in New York City, the criticism is as loud as ever. Success has produced stellar academic outcomes, even winning the prestigious Broad Prize this year for its successes in closing race- and income-based achievement gaps at its 45-plus schools.

But it has also come under intense scrutiny in recent years amid student-discipline scandals and allegations that it employs discriminatory enrollment strategies. Success has, teachers unions and their allies insist, come to epitomize why market-based approaches to education—school choice, in other words—end up hurting the kids most in need of quality learning opportunities.

Moskowtiz is used to all the flak. But based on how much space she devotes in her new memoir to analyzing and defending herself against those labels, it’s clear the backlash she’s faced hardly leaves her unfazed. Her reputation as a pugnacious politician-turned-charter-school founder is something that, she argues, is completely at odds with who she truly is as a person. Bad impressions, however, have long been a sacrifice she’s willing to make when it comes to New York City’s neediest children, who she’s convinced will remain stuck in the poverty cycle as long as the city’s moneyed interests (read: powerful politicians and the unions they court) maintain control over what happens in its district schools.

“I was a persona non grata with the Democratic machine,” she writes in The Education of Eva Moskowitz, but “it hadn’t always been this way. ... My ability to build coalitions was precisely what had allowed me to pass so many laws. My views on the labor contracts, however, were diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues so I’d inevitably alienated them when I’d taken on this issue.” This recounting embodies the leadership style she practices to this day. A lifelong Democrat whose schools primarily serve students of color, including many undocumented immigrants, she was a vocal defender of Donald Trump after the election and was even on the short list to head up the Education Department; when the nomination for education secretary went to the highly unpopular Betsy DeVos, Moskowitz was quick to endorse her. (In a note to parents and staff last month, Moskowitz distanced herself from the president, citing his response to the fatal white supremacist riots in Charlottesville.)

The Education of Eva Moskowitz offers the most intimate look to date into perhaps the nation’s most high-profile education reformer, a woman who is as infamous as she is admired. She walks readers through all the obstacles that almost prevented Success from coming to fruition, and all the obstacles—from a barrage of bad press to a vicious rivalry with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—that it has had to overcome since.

I recently spoke to Moskowitz about her memoir, her crusade to reform education, and her efforts to change the often-cynical narrative about that crusade. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Alia Wong: What made you decide to write this memoir?

Eva Moskowitz: I actually resisted doing it ... but my husband really felt that I should write this book. It was a really interesting story, a powerful story, but I was not convinced that I should—partly because of time and partly because I had been trying to put some of the politics behind me, and I wasn’t so eager to reopen for everyone to see that discussion. But he kind of wore me down.

Wong: I was surprised to read your recollections of your time as a student at Stuyvesant—which today is one of the most prestigious and respected public high schools in New York City—and learn that you didn’t have a great educational experience there. How did that experience inform your views on education?

Moskowitz: It did stick with me that the school was quite dysfunctional. French teachers who didn’t know French. Teachers got there by seniority. … It was pretty bureaucratic. It was not inspiring, even though the kids were very inspiring. And it was a little bit of a rat race—you had to do everything yourself.

Wong: Some people argue that the kind of market-based approach to education reform that you espouse ends up hurting underprivileged children. They might argue that the competition it engenders prompts parents with means and social capital to give their kids the best education possible at the expense of other kids. Why do you think school choice is the most promising way of serving children in need?

Moskowitz: In fact, the data in New York City shows that charter schools don't harm district schools. In Central Harlem, where 51 percent of elementary school students now attend charters, the level of district school performance hasn't declined. If you look collectively at district and charter-school performance, in 2006, Central Harlem was 28th out of New York City's 32 school districts. Now it's 14th.

The phenomenon of parents of means and social capital getting an advantage is in fact more pernicious in the district schools where, unlike charters, many schools screen their students or have admissions criteria or have very small zones with expensive housing. In New York City, the idea that district schools advance equality is a myth.

Wong: The advantages of school choice aside, let’s talk about the school climate. Success schools are widely perceived to be harsh, “no-excuses” places where students are incessantly disciplined. What do you say when you hear about those perceptions?

Moskowitz: We’re not a no-excuses school. We’re just not. So I don’t really know how to respond to that nomenclature. That doesn’t mean you don’t believe that high levels of learning can occur in chaos, and we do believe that students do need to say please and thank you to the lunch ladies, and we do assign school uniforms to simplify things for parents ... and really allow us to focus on learning [instead of clothes].

But the schools are warm. … Have there been isolated instances where a teacher has misunderstood? Yes, but that’s not the design—that is an individual’s translation of the design, and as soon as we find out about it, we ... correct course. Look. I send my own children to Success, and I certainly didn’t want to send my own children to a place that was harsh.

Wong: If that narrative isn’t objectively true, why do you think it keeps getting repeated? From my perch in the education-journalism world, it certainly does seem like the dominant perception.

Moskowitz: I don’t know if i can fully answer the why, but I think I can posit some theories if you’d like.

Wong: Sure.

Moskowitz: Controversy sells. I don’t know if the fact that all of our second-graders are playing Monopoly for 90 minutes on a Wednesday laughing and sometimes arguing about the rules (there’s a lot of arguing that goes on among children when they're playing games) [would sell]. ...  Talking about loving children and schools and warmth? I don’t know if that sells newspapers. I assure you: If I were to hear a teacher raise a voice at a kid or anything, that goes against the model and I would immediately address it. And what I find is that kids are laughing, engaged; I see teachers hugging kids. ...

Not only is this image for us an out-of-body experience—because we honestly don’t know what folks [in the media] are talking about—but ... we are also the height of silliness and humor. We had a Dr. Seuss Day. One of our schools did a Hipster Day. Star Wars Day. ... And these are not just isolated days; all year long we are laughing with children. We’re pretty playful people.

Wong: In the beginning you regularly quote your grandfather’s poetry. This, for example, was one he wrote when he arrived in America after escaping the Holocaust:

Now, after wandering so long,
over many lands and oceans wide,
I sing a song of praise to you,
the land that gave me a new home.

Now, no one is excluded,
that is what makes you truly great.
All the children of God’s world
are welcomed at your gates.

How do you think it relates to your role as an education reformer?

Moskowitz: I was struck by the pain that my grandfather experienced during the Nazi era and yet his optimism and enthusiasm for New York and America ... There’s a theme of social responsibility in his poetry, and I certainly feel that greatly. And education, of course, was his children’s route to success. I believe in the power of this country in terms of its potential to unleash opportunity for its poorest citizens. So there are lots of parallels there although it’s a fundamentally different era.

Wong: Why didn’t you ever become a K-12 teacher? In your memoir you write that it was one of the careers that as a little girl you imagined yourself doing.

Moskowitz: Well, I did teach. After I graduated from college, I worked for Prep for Prep [a nonprofit program that works with gifted children of color] as a teacher. I taught fourth grade. And the reason I got into academia was to be a teacher at the college level—at UVA [the University of Virginia] and Vanderbilt. I took my teaching responsibilities very seriously. … I taught some great courses: Legal history to feminist theory, courses in American mass culture ... I love teaching—I mean really love it. I would have lines of students outside my office hours.

Wong: What did you love about it?

Moskowitz: I loved everything. I loved picking the books for the course—finding the greatest books I could find that would really interest students. I loved the idea that you could impact their thinking on various topics. I liked seminars a little more than lectures, but I also loved preparing for my lectures. I put a premium on engagement: And so if I taught them Monday, Wednesday, Friday, when I teach my lecture on Monday I want it to be a cliffhanger so they want to come in on Wednesday and find out what happens next. I had a great deal of fun. I also found students just really interesting; they’re sort of open and honest about what they think, and I just like that.

I thought it was really unfortunate that kids got to college and they didn’t necessarily have a great senior English teacher. I thought it was my moral obligation to improve their writing, and so I spent a lot of time on thinking about How do you teach writing? and How do you improve writing? And writing … it’s a pretty powerful mechanism for self expression, and you’re kind of limited if you can’t use language in a persuasive way. … I thought that would be helpful not just as a means of self expression but I also thought that, when they have to write their first cover letter, their parents might appreciate me.

Wong: How do these values you’ve just described play out in the K-12 classrooms at Success Academy? How has your experience as a college professor influenced the design of your schools?

Moskowitz: I think it’s fairly unique to define the end goal of K-12 schooling as helping students become better thinkers, more creative thinkers, and to organize the whole school around creative and critical thinking. That’s not how most schools in America would describe their mission, and I do think that comes from my family upbringing, where ideas were really central and where persuasion is really central, and my own education and own approach to teaching was very ideas-focused.

Even though I’m a historian by training, to me history is not simply facts and figures—it’s really ideas. What were the major ideas, what were the major forces, at work during the industrial period or the colonial period? I brought that [approach] down to K-12. That approach, by the way, doesn’t mean one is hostile to skills. You can still believe that mastery of grammar is important and have a focus on thinking and ideas and compelling evidence; they’re not mutually exclusive.

Wong: Much of the news coverage of the schools that I’ve read at least hasn’t gotten into the pedagogy. Similar to the divergent narratives about the school climate at Success, it seems that there’s a disconnect between the story you see in classrooms and the one journalists say they see. You devote a significant chunk of the book to describing your relationship with journalists—especially those at The New York Times, which has come out with some pretty scathing stories about your schools. Why did you decide to revisit those tensions and those conflicts? You mentioned earlier your resistance to reopening old wounds.

Moskowitz: Look, I was very nervous about the decision. I’m a former civics teacher … and the Fourth Estate is something that I have deep respect for and I believe is incredibly important. But when the press is sort of manipulative and gets it wrong either factually or the spirit of the thing, it really has very serious implications. … So I decided to include it for educational reasons.

Rotten schooling is nothing new. It’s as bad as it was yesterday [so no one wants to write about it]. I just hope that, looking forward a decade, the media pays less attention to the quote-unquote controversy of everything and more attention to these real problems.

Wong: You’re often described as combative or adversarial, as having “sharp elbows.” Do you think that, in a way, those qualities are necessary to actually getting things done and successfully reforming education?

Moskowitz: It’s funny—and maybe one has blind spots—I don’t see myself as combative. I see myself as forcefully advocating. It’s hard to just say: Pretty please, treat our children well. My parents brought me up to be gracious, to ask nicely, but it’s hard to get the bureaucracy to listen, and it’s hard to get the political powers that be to listen and deliver, without mobilizing and standing on the steps of City Hall and demanding. I really would love to live in a world where children were such a high priority and teaching and learning were so incredibly valorized that the red carpet was rolled out for the children and that we wouldn't have to fight and claw our way. It’s quite exhausting.

Wong: To a certain extent, don’t education reformers need to be combative?

I guess what some see as combative I see as refusing to be bullied by the powers that be ... I find it very nerve-wracking—it’s not that I have so much courage. Even though we’re the highest-performing elementary schools in the state of New York, I can't get the mayor of the city of New York to give us space for our middle schools. So I have to hold press conferences and protests and write op-eds and, I don’t know, jump up and down. I get accused of being aggressive and combative, but my schools got [evicted by de Blasio], so why am I “combative”? Why isn’t the mayor of the city of New York “combative”? I’m trying to get along with as many people as possible so I can get kids what they need and deserve.

The most common thing that a parent will say to me is—and it makes me cry every time—before Success I had an older child, and I couldn’t save my older kid but I was able to save my younger child. No parent should be put through that Sophie’s Choice situation. And so: If I have to fight to prevent families from being in that situation then I’m willing to fight like hell.