If Eva Moskowitz Weren’t Real, Charter School Opponents Would Have Had to Make Her Up

Eva Moskowitz has a lot more name recognition than most charter school CEOs.

Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Eva Moskowitz, former New York City Council member and the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, announced that she would not fire the principal responsible for the now-notorious “got to go” list that the New York Times reported on the previous day. The Times story detailed one Success Academy’s efforts to push out 16 particularly challenging kids: “I felt I couldn’t turn the school around if these students remained,” the principal, Candido Brown, said in an email.

Without defending the actions of the principal, the ever-classy Moskowitz distributed emails she’d sent after discovering the “got to go” list and reprimanding Brown, who she called “stubborn and somewhat dense” in one missive.

“At Success, we simply don’t believe in throwing people on the trash heap for the sake of public relations,” Moskowitz said of her refusal to fire Brown. (Note: This is exactly what she is accused of doing to students who don’t meet Success’ rigorous disciplinary and academic expectations.) The short-lived list, in Moskowitz’s telling, was an outlier—the error of a single “dense” principal, not a systemic problem with how her schools are run.

Brown, the principal, also spoke, through tears: “As an educator I fell short of my commitment to all children and families at my school and for that I am deeply sorry.” He said he was “doing what I thought I needed to do to fix a school where I would not send my own child.”

Success is New York City’s largest charter network, with 11,000 students. The most that Moskowitz would acknowledge was that “Success may not be the absolute best setting for every child,” particularly children with special needs. This is not a new admission, or a new controversy—though the storm clouds seem to be thickening above Success’ CEO of late.

To think that just a month ago Moskowitz was considered a likely challenger—and a legitimate threat—to the anti-charter incumbent Mayor Bill de Blasio; her decision not to run, announced at a press conference, was big news.

But in the three weeks since, Moskowitz has kept her crisis team busy. First, PBS NewsHour ran a blistering report on Success’ policy of suspending kids as early as kindergarten. In her efforts to extract an apology from PBS for the segment, an outraged Moskowitz published excerpts from a then-first grader’s disciplinary record, which as Slate reported last week, may well be a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.* On Friday, the day after the “got to go” list made national headlines, the family of the student named in the reports did indeed file a FERPA complaint.

But even without these embarrassing flubs, Eva Moskowitz and her New York City–only network of charter schools generate a great deal of interest that goes far beyond the tri-state area. Perhaps it’s because the ongoing controversy over Success gets to the very heart of the charter-versus-public school debate that has divided educators for the past two decades.

Moskowitz, whose salary is just shy of half a million dollars, has been a high-profile whipping boy for opponents of education reform since soon after founding the first Success Academy (then Harlem Success Academy) in 2006. And not without reason: Some of the school’s draconian disciplinary policies tidily make the case for defenders of traditional public schools who have long accused charters of counseling out and/or suspending unsatisfactory students so aggressively that they withdraw.

In this narrative, the schools don’t have impressive test scores because they’re doing such a good job at educating kids, but because they’re pre-emptively pushing out the ones who were never going to make the grade. And in “creaming” the good students, the charters are dumping the less desirable ones on already-struggling public schools, which have no choice but to take all comers.

Which raises the question: Is the “got to go” list an anomaly or just a formalized exaggeration of what is happening at Success Academy equivalents all over the country?  

Is Success a model for how to educate disadvantaged students, or are its extreme practices doing a disservice to the charter schools out there that are taking all comers? (My son goes to one such charter, which, while not without its problems, responded to a few parents’ very, very loud calls to push out some “extremely disruptive students” last year by doubling down on its support system for them. Though I guess the fact that pushing these kids out was even a topic of discussion returns us to the original problem …)

The anti-reform account certainly isn’t the whole truth, but there’s surely something in it. Why else would Eva Moskowitz keep having to hold all these press conferences?

*Correction, Nov. 2, 2015: This article originally stated that the child was in kindergarten. He was in first grade.