Success Academy chief Eva Moskowitz says she won’t run for mayor — this time

Eva Moskowitz, the polarizing charter school chief who has frequently clashed with Mayor Bill de Blasio, will not run for mayor in 2017, she said Thursday.

Speaking in front of City Hall, Moskowitz said she wanted to remain focused on her growing network of charter schools and on “educational activism.” The much-anticipated announcement brings speculation about her role in the 2017 mayor’s race to an early end, though she said she hasn’t ruled out a run in 2021.

“I think that what could be accomplished in public education is game changing,” she said. “I believe we have the chance to dramatically change public education, of doing for education, frankly, what Apple did with computing for the iPhone, what Google is doing with driverless cars.”

With Moskowitz bowing out of the mayoral race, speculation is likely to shift to the question of whether she will give her blessing to another candidate — which could bring with it the backing of thousands of charter-school parents and perhaps some of Success’ wealthy financiers. She said Thursday that she would seek to endorse a candidate who promised to overhaul the city’s education system, but added that she has yet identify that person.

Moskowitz has developed a passionate, if still relatively small, constituency of parents who want to see charter schools expand. On Wednesday, thousands of charter school supporters marched to City Hall, including parents, students, and teachers from Success’ nearly three-dozen schools.

But she would have faced a tough challenge if she had decided to face off against de Blasio when he runs for a second term: The mayor would have an advantage as an incumbent with broad support among organized labor, and Moskowitz would need to cultivate a larger base of support beyond charter-school parents and donors.

She also would have to contend with a reputation for abrasiveness and a record of confrontation with her critics, which has led some fellow charter operators to distance themselves from her and galvanized many charter-school opponents. During her announcement Thursday, protesters chanted in nearby City Hall Park.

Moskowitz acknowledged that such protests would become a fact of life if she became mayor, with “four years of dueling press conferences” likely between her administration and her chief antagonist, teachers union president Michael Mulgrew.

Mulgrew released a statement after the press conference suggesting that if Moskowitz ran for mayor it would expose her connection to big donors.

“Thousands of teachers and parents are disappointed today.  They had been looking forward to pulling back the curtain and showing the public the real Eva Moskowitz and the privatization agenda of her hedge-fund pals,” he said.

Still, the interest her announcement brought on Wednesday and Thursday illustrates the power she wields as one of de Blasio’s toughest critics. Moskowitz defeated the mayor early in his tenure when he tried to block her schools from moving into public buildings, and she has more recently publicized their disputes over payments and public space for her schools. On Thursday, she said she does not blame him for the challenges facing the city school system, but that he should be held accountable for finding ways to fix it.

Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman who chaired the education committee, has long mixed politics with the work of running charter schools. She runs a political action committee, Great Public Schools, that’s given money to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state elected officials in recent years. She’s also an adept fundraiser, with members of the Success Academy network’s board contributing large sums to campaigns.

Her decision not to challenge de Blasio comes as Success Academy is growing quickly. The network is preparing to open eight new schools next year, and dozens of others are still expanding. The network also saw the departures of two longtime executives last month, including Keri Hoyt, Moskowitz’s longtime second-in-command.

One challenge for Moskowitz, and Success, if she were to run for public office in the future is the scrutiny it would attract to her schools.

Moskowitz has clashed with educators on a host of practices that she uses in her schools — whose students consistently outscore most of their charter and traditional school peers on state tests — including harsh discipline policies. She says that suspensions should be used to send a message to students and families about a school’s expectations, something she’s defended as many cities, and federal education officials, have pushed to reduce exclusionary discipline practices. Her schools have also been criticized for an overemphasis on intense test preparation and for serving a smaller share of high-needs students than the traditional public school system.

Meanwhile, Moskowitz’s appearances in Washington and at education-reform events have given her a growing profile on the national stage. Last year, she testified before Congress about education’s role in boosting the economy and this year brought students and a teacher to Capitol Hill to show demonstrate a lesson to lawmakers.

“I am very clear in my convictions of what needs to be done,” she said Thursday, “so I’m going to continue to do educational activism in the same way I’ve done it for the last 20 years.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.