February 27, 2009
Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, who has done some seriously good work in the past, this week took his pistol-like investigative skills to the skull of charter school operator and eternal politician Eva Moskowitz — first in a story on the erosion of parent voices in the city schools, and then in a story on Moskowitz’s salary. Gonzalez challenges the salary, which he reports as $371,000 last year (Moskowitz says the real figure is $250,000 plus a $60,000 bonus), suggesting that she should give some of her pay back to her charter schools.
This is hardly the first criticism that’s been thrown at Moskowitz, who previously served as the chair of the City Council’s education committee and ran for borough president of Manhattan, losing to Scott Stringer after the teachers union campaigned against her. As Gonzalez reports, her critics include “educators, parents, the teachers’ union and Harlem political leaders.”
Why’s there so much hate for a woman who has decided to spend her days starting schools for poor and mostly black children in Harlem? There are now many charter school operators in this city. Why focus on Moskowitz? I asked around today and collected three different theories:
1) This theory is the one that’s implicit in Gonzalez’s report: She deserves the scrutiny because she’s not what she claims. She claims that her charter schools are unfairly underfunded by the state — but then she rakes in a big salary herself. She similarly claims to want to improve public education — but then she goes along with a Department of Education plan to move her charter school into an existing public school, effectively allowing the city to go over the heads of parents and, as Gonzalez put it in an another piece this week, “rezone a public school.” (Only about 30 families will be displaced.)
2) The second theory comes by way of a charter school official who asked not to be named because he hadn’t shared his thoughts with Moskowitz. He told me that Moskowitz suffers a style problem. Rather than approaching the district public schools with respect, Moskowitz makes a habit of dismissing their work as unacceptable.
“‘You’re trash,’ is what the message is. ‘You’re trash, and get out of the way, because we know what to do and you don’t,’” the official said. “No person can say that. I don’t think any person has that authority. Especially someone who hasn’t run a successful school for more than a few years.” He said the better method, practiced by several other city charter schools, is to develop relationships of respect and trust, to work together rather than to fight the old system. “Even the KIPP people,who have a much logner track record of success, they speak with a level of humility,” the official said.
3) The third theory is Moskowitz’s own. She acknowledges that she doesn’t work in the same style as other charter school leaders might — but she thinks that’s a good thing. Here’s how she put it to me:
We have to always be respectful of people because being nice is the right thing to do and important, but I think we have a moral obligation to identify schools that are not working for kids, and unfortunately there are a lot of them. If that’s disrespectful – if saying that a school is failing is offensive – I think that we can’t be politically correct and sacrifice children in the process.
The result is that she’s willing and eager to declare schools as failures, and to urge that they be replaced with something new. And the result of that is a powerful challenge to the status quo that she says can mean a high price for her. “Even at considerable personal and professional cost, I’ve never been afraid to raise the bar and to do what I think is right for children and teaching and learning,” she said. “And that’s incredibly threatening.”