5 questions for Eva Moskowitz

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Moskowitz and the charter-friendly Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools. Getty Images.

Eva Moskowitz runs four campuses of the Harlem Success Academy in New York City and talks about growing the charter school network to 40.

She is a former New York City councilwoman who infuriated both the city Department of Education and the teachers’ union with her questioning as chair of the council’s education committee.

Supporters point to some of the state’s highest test scores at her first Harlem campus, opened in 2006, and its emphasis on science, the arts and chess.

Critics say she’s a politician at heart and she’s been dinged for making too much money.

In Denver on Friday, Moskowitz sat down with Ed News Colorado to talk about the challenges ahead for the nation’s charter schools, the controversy over co-location or putting charter programs in district buildings and recent studies describing segregation in charter schools.  

Ed News: Charter schools seem to be as controversial today as they were when they were created more than a decade ago in many states. In Denver, a school board member announced Thursday that he planned to seek a moratorium on any new schools. Board member Arturo Jimenez says he is not anti-charter but his move, if successful, could hurt charters more as they have made up most of the city’s new schools. Why do you think charters are still so hotly debated?

Moskowitz: I think what’s happened is two things. First, you just have many more charter schools and so their volume is greater. And of course you now have parents who are … not universally satisfied with the results but, compared to their district schools, they have a completely different level of satisfaction. So the threat of charters in a way is much greater than it was at the beginning of the experiment. The experiment is working with, to be fair, bad spots. I mean all charters are not good.

And I always say to people, my own investment is not in charters per se but parental choice. Because charters are the thing now, but maybe someone will come up with some new delivery system. And if that turns out to be better, we shouldn’t stick to charters. Having a charter doesn’t mean you will get it right, it means you have the freedom to get it right.

Ed News: Do you think the Obama administration’s focus on charters – including them in the Race to the Top grant competition, for example – has accelerated concerns about charters?

Moskowitz at an enrollment lottery for her schools. New York Daily News photo.

Moskowitz: Yeah. I think putting three quarters of a billion dollars on the table which states desperately want, they’d want it even if we weren’t in bad fiscal times but now particularly so, and to only be able to get it if you were friendly to reform on a whole host of specific ways, I think has brought the fight out onto the street as it were. It was always there, maybe not as voluminous, but now it’s very public.

Ed News: The Obama administration actually backed off of its charter school push somewhat in Race to the Top, perhaps because of concerns raised about the ability of charter operators to rapidly replicate their schools. Are those concerns justified?

Moskowitz: The problem with this whole thing is that it’s a little tautological. If we make it very difficult for suppliers to open up charter schools, then yes, they will find replication very difficult. But if you embrace good public policies like a kid is a kid is a kid and therefore the funding should be the same, why would elected officials or parents or anyone else, why would they care what the delivery system is? As long as the school is excellent and as long as it is public, and from my perspective I embrace parent choice so I think parochial schools need to be in the mix and all sorts of schools need to be in the mix.

But from a public policy point of view, you will have a lot more replicators if you embrace equal funding, if you looked at public school buildings as not belonging to the district … they belong to the public. If a district school is great, the superintendent – or chancellor whatever your structure is – should say this person runs a great district school and they should get a building because they are great. And you should say, if this person runs a great charter school therefore they should be in a building, possibly even co-located.

Is it difficult to replicate? The answer is yes, but the politics make it far more difficult. So if you want more replicators, you have to not put obstacles that are completely unnecessary and arbitrary, that are just the product of politics and have nothing to do with teaching and learning, in the way.

Ed News: State law in Ohio allows a school district to claim the test scores of a charter school if they are housed in a district building. Putting a high-performing charter with a low-performing traditional program could boost its scores, which might ease the pain of co-location, something you’ve dealt with in New York. Would you support that policy? 

Moskowitz: I am utterly opposed to that. It runs completely counter to accountability. I just think that’s bad for children. I get that it’s a bribe and it might make it go down easier but I think you have to be careful which quid pro quo you’re willing to embrace.

Ed News: A couple of recent studies have come out critical of segregation in charter schools. Is that important to you?

Moskowitz: That criticism is very disingenuous because, on the one hand, charters get criticized for not being accessible enough and not reflecting the community. In New York, for example, charters are criticized for serving the elite and being part of gentrification. But the charter school population is above 97 percent minority. Of our four schools, we have 1,400 kids, we have 3, maybe 4, white kids and one Asian child.

Protestors objecting to sharing space in a traditional school with a Harlem Success Academy. photo.

Having said that, I think there’s a tendency in the charter school movement to celebrate a lack of socio-economic diversity. Because it’s more virtuous if you are serving the poorest of the poor. If one school has 50 percent poverty and another has 75 percent poverty, the 75 percent poverty is somehow better. I don’t view it that way. I think we need many more charters that have socio-economic integration. I also think that we need to get charter schools into more affluent districts because I think many middle-class and upper middle-class parents think their schools are better than they are … their schools are very complacent.

I believe in diversity in schools. When parents call us and they ask about diversity, I know that they’re white. And what they’re asking is, how many white kids are in the school? I would like to get to a point where consumers are asking about the quality of the education, whether they’re white or black and so forth. But look, if you put a school in Harlem … we are reflective of the community. And the other factor here is we really want to be a neighborhood school so we’re somewhat subject to the racial and socio-economic segregation of the city and that’s hard to change.

I think we will change it eventually because our program is so appealing to middle-class families. We teach science five days a week starting in kindergarten, we’re tremendous believers in the arts, we do more field trips than any school in the country that I’ve been able to discover … Whether people can put their racial discomforts aside, I do not know. And right now my focus is just on excellent schools and letting the customers figure out what they want.

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or 303-478-4573.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.