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The Patron Saint (and Scourge) of Lost Schools

Eva Moskowitz, the controversial leader of the fastest-growing charter network in the city, wants to save New York public education by, in a sense, destroying it.

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Eva Moskowitz glares at the linoleum tile on the Try and Try stairwell, brow furrowed at a micromanager’s nightmare: a gray stain, six inches long. “This drives me crazy,” she says.

It’s 7:50 a.m. on a Monday as the ex–City Council member arrives inside Harlem Success Academy 1, the flagship of her mushrooming charter-school network. She’s spent the last twenty minutes at the school’s gate off Lenox Avenue, digging into a startled child’s collar to flag a missing clip-on tie, scanning for regulation footwear. (By rule, boys wear shoes with Velcro fasteners; girls, Mary Janes.) She prods stragglers in a piercing voice: “Good morning, scholars, how are you? Have a good day—work hard!” She knows nearly half the kids’ names, and looks genuinely delighted when a girl hugs her unsolicited.

On the offending stairway, still wrapped in her fur-cuffed coat, Moskowitz Tommy-guns an e-mail to her operations manager: “Custodians did not clean 2nd-floor landing. Please talk to them about doing their job.” The blunt appraisal, the dash of attitude—just a hint of what’s inspired a malicious nickname among the United Federation of Teachers and its allies: Evil Moskowitz.

“And in the bathrooms,” she says. “What I really can’t stand is urine.” The word hangs in the air, incongruous with its source, a woman whose signature accessories are pearl necklaces and patent-leather heels. “If there’s urine on the toilet seat, it’s disrespectful to the children.”

Tile stains and potty pee might seem beneath this CEO’s pay grade (north of $300,000 per year) or a distraction from running a four-school chain that aims to expand at least tenfold. But Moskowitz’s fine-grained focus imbues every facet of Success Charter Network: the reading rugs in air-conditioned classrooms, the hands-on science program (after the Brearley School’s), the otherworldly performance on last year’s standardized tests, and, yes, the gleaming lavatories. A pristine stairwell is one more step toward her objective: a data-driven, no-excuses haven for learning, where all children excel and shoestrings never come undone.

“This isn’t a job for her, this is a mission,” says Paul Fucaloro, her director of instruction and right-hand man. Or, more, a crusade—to invent a new culture for quasi-public schools and transfigure inner-city education in New York. By the available metrics, early returns at Harlem Success Academies are nonpareil. But as in all crusades, the march can be ruthless, and more than a little bloody.

Charter schools are fast filling the breach in public education; they now teach more than 1.5 million students nationally, double the number six years ago. Despite wildly uneven performance, they’ve gained a quick-fix cachet amid a pandemic of failure. They are hybrids with inherent tensions: publicly funded but autonomously owned and operated, accountable for results but largely free of government oversight. In New York, their five-year charters are granted by the Board of Regents, the SUNY Board of Trustees, or the local school board. Schools showing adequate student progress, as defined by state tests, can mostly do as they please. They may add revenue from private sources, lengthen their academic day and year, create their own curricula, hire—and fire—nonunionized teachers at will.

There are 99 charter schools in the city, 23 in Harlem alone, most of them sharing buildings with zoned schools run by the Department of Education. According to government sources, the city’s co-located charter schools receive, on average, nearly as much per-pupil taxpayer support (within 5 percent) as the zoned schools, in addition to whatever they rake in from their private benefactors. In the current fiscal year, Success Charter Network has raised $4.8 million.

The city’s charters enroll about 30,000 children from all five boroughs, overwhelmingly black or Latino and from low-income families. That’s not quite 3 percent of the city’s public-school population, as compared with 9 percent in Los Angeles or 36 percent in Washington, D.C. But market share is a fluid thing, and “New York’s moving faster than anybody,” says Steve Barr, a national charter leader. In fact, this is the only big city to welcome charters systematically into its school buildings, rent-free. By the end of his third term, Mayor Bloomberg hopes to double the charters’ numbers and more than triple their population, to 100,000, a lever that could terminate weak zoned elementary schools and cost the UFT millions in lost dues. Even now, traditional schools in Harlem face plummeting enrollments—a sign, Chancellor Joel Klein likes to say, of parents’ voting with their feet. But State Senator Bill Perkins draws a different conclusion: “What you’re seeing is people fleeing out of a four-alarm fire.” Charter schools, Perkins says, “are at best an act of desperate faith.”

At the crux of this sea change stands Moskowitz. At 47, she is feared, revered, and reviled in like proportions. As the face of the social-Darwinist wing of the local charter movement, she’s been cast as the grim reaper of moribund neighborhood schools, a witting tool of privatizing billionaires, and a Machiavellian schemer with her sights set on the mayoralty. “She’s the spokesperson in demonizing the public schools,” says Noah Gotbaum, president of District 3’s Community Education Council. “Eva’s philosophy is that you’ve got to burn the village to save it.”


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