on the record

Why charter school leader Eva Moskowitz, a Democrat, is going to bat for Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Eva Moskowitz speaks to students at the 2016 "Slam the Exam" rally.

As news spread last fall that Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, was being considered for education secretary by then-President-elect Donald Trump, some fellow Democrats were apoplectic. How could Moskowitz, whose schools serve mostly low-income families of color, align herself with a staunchly conservative administration?

Her meeting with Trump and subsequent endorsement of Michigan philanthropist Betsy DeVos for the job put her at odds with many other charter leaders. After Trump’s inauguration, Moskowitz’s own staff reportedly pushed her to speak out. Ultimately, she did send a letter home to parents, vowing to assist families wrestling with the president’s immigration policies and to defend transgender students.

Yet she hasn’t wavered on DeVos, arguing that education should be a bipartisan issue. Chalkbeat sat down with Moskowitz to find out more about how she made that political calculation — and if she is concerned about the Trump tie hurting her own aspirations, including a potential future run for mayor.

“I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this,” she told us. “But that’s not how I live my life.”

Moskowitz, a former City Council education chair and frequent critic of district schools, knows about political payback. The United Federation of Teachers successfully mobilized against her 2005 bid for Manhattan borough president. Still, she continues to lob grenades at the union and at Mayor Bill de Blasio, whom she’s called “very hostile” to charters.

In a wide-ranging interview, Moskowitz discussed her plans for expanding Success, the city’s largest charter network, which now has 41 schools. Not only does she still expect to have 100 schools within the decade, she predicts the number of students served by charters in New York City will double in just four years, assuming Albany lifts the current cap on the sector.

“The demand is just overwhelming,” she said. “It’s not a force that is easily stopped.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been supportive of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Do you agree with her on vouchers?

I support all forms of parental choice: Charters, tax credits. I certainly have, in the past, supported vouchers for special ed kids, and now vouchers for all kids. If that is your only choice to get to a good school, I can’t morally see how I limit a parent’s opportunity for that. Now, having said that, I think a lot of these schools are not very good. And they need to lose their status when they don’t deliver, just the way the district schools should lose their status. But I broadly support parent choice.

What about the research showing that vouchers are often harmful to students?

I don’t think the vouchers are harmful. I think that’s a misunderstanding — the service delivery mechanism is not what is harmful. What is harmful is the bad school. So, we’ve got to figure out a way to give parents the freedom to choose. I think that’s going to be very empowering and I think parents are far more sophisticated than we give them credit for. And then, government has some regulatory role to ensure that good schools of all forms are promoted and lousy schools are shut down or get access to limited resources. And that’s really an accountability mechanism. But that’s my personal view. I don’t spend a lot of time on vouchers or even tax credits because I think charters are a faster way to get great schools in the hands of parents. But I do believe in being intellectually consistent and so that’s why I support parental choice broadly.

DeVos’s nomination and confirmation split the ed reform movement. Do you think that’s caused permanent damage?

I think there were a lot of splits in the movement beforehand. I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue. And I think you have elections for politics. I supported Hillary Clinton, but when the election is over, I think it’s important to work with people across the aisle. And children and families, for them, the daily experience is not a partisan issue. It’s about great teaching and learning and the academic development and social and emotional development of their kid. So I think there’s a time for politicking and a time for governing.

Did backing her hurt you personally — among your peers in the charter sector? Or for the future, if you want to run for mayor?

We live in a pretty intolerant world and people use everything against one that they possibly could. So I do think that if I were just kind of worrying about some abstract future political career, you wouldn’t do this. But that’s not how I live my life. I try and live my life by thinking about what’s the morally correct thing to do and how do I be consistent with my beliefs and what I’m trying to do. And then I let the chips fall where they may.

Critics are concerned that Secretary DeVos doesn’t know enough about public education. You went to public school, you sent your children to public school. She didn’t. Does that matter?

Well, Joel Klein didn’t know a lot about public education before he became chancellor [of New York City schools]. And I think you could find a number of past secretaries of education who were not either consumers of public education or had that much contact. I think more challenging for her — because you can surround yourself with good people who understand it at a very high level — I think it’s government relations. The space is so contentious that knowing how to navigate in that environment, that’s hard to learn quickly. And I think she’s going to have to learn it quickly. It’s not obvious, I think, if you haven’t been in that world, how brutal it is and how contentious.

Success currently has 41 schools, serving 14,000 students, but you’ve talked about expanding to 100 schools in the next 10 years. How do you choose which neighborhoods you want to open in?

We go to neighborhoods where there is extraordinary educational need, where schools are failing, where there isn’t great art, music, dance, chess. But also where there is space, because I am dependent on there being space to open up schools. Last year, we went to Far Rockaway because there is extraordinary educational need. That community is not in the spotlight, but there is great, great educational need there. And there was a building that was at 50 percent utilization and so there was just plenty of room to open up a new school.

What about your schools that are in more affluent or middle-class neighborhoods? You’ve spoken a lot about serving low-income students, so why open on the Upper West Side or in Union Square?

To me, the definition of public education is that public schools are for everyone. They’re not just for the most educationally disadvantaged or poorest. And so we take the notion of public education very seriously. And where there is space, we are very interested in serving the larger public. We also believe very much in integrated schools — socioeconomically, ethnically and racially — and in New York, there are often very affluent people living right next to quite economically disadvantaged people, and so, if you open up a school, you can have a very integrated school.

Brandeis High School [on the Upper West Side] was an underutilized building. It has brownstones and it has housing projects right next to each other, and so that is a highly integrated school. And we believe in that. Everything else being equal, we think integrated schools are better.

Gov. Cuomo has proposed lifting New York City’s charter cap so we’d just have one statewide cap instead. That would obviously give more flexibility to charters looking to expand in the city. Are you counting on that happening?

It’s always dangerous to count on anything in Albany, so I don’t count on much of anything. But obviously, long-term, the cap would have to be lifted. And there is such parental demand that I don’t even think the strongest opponents are going to be able to resist.

It seems like the governor is supporting you — based on this and other proposals now pending.

The New York state legislature as a whole, I think, has turned a corner. There are a lot of Assembly members who are supportive of charters. It’s a bipartisan issue. I really think it’s unions who are kind of left in their corner.

Most politicians understand this because many of them have children themselves and they want good choices for their own kids. And so, they kind of get that it’s not fair for other people’s kids not to be able to get good choices. So I think the tide is turning in a positive direction.

Charter schools in New York City now serve 100,000 students — roughly 10 percent of city students. Do you envision a future where charters represent close to half of the city’s schools, as in D.C., or nearly all schools, as in New Orleans?

I do think in the next four years, you’ll see a doubling of that size of the charter sector — from 100,000 to 200,000. And remember it took 18 years to get to 100,000. I think it’s going to go much, much faster in the future.

Even with the cap?

Yeah, because I think the cap is going to be lifted at some point. It has already been lifted several times. As I said, the demand is just overwhelming. It’s not a force that is easily stopped. We keep opening and our waitlists keep growing. And we’re one set of schools.

I’m not saying that because I think parents are sort of charter-lovers or anything like that. This whole district public school vs. charter public school — I don’t think parents think of it that way. I think they think of, “I want a great school for my kid. Who’s got one? And how can I get my kid into that school?” And frankly the random lottery system seems fairer to parents than you have to be zoned for some area where you can only get into that zone if you’re able to rent an apartment that is too expensive for you. That seems very unfair to parents.

I just think you’re going to see growth. There are still obstacles, though. It takes a lot of work and navigation to get the space … And to date, we’ve had a mayor who is very reluctant to give charters space. So that’s going to be a limiting factor if we can’t change those policies and make it easier. I know quite a bit about this and have been working at this for almost two decades, and I find it very, very challenging.

You’ve said we need to rethink teacher training. What needs to change first?

There are so many things. I think teacher training is sort of forced to design its programs often for dysfunctional schools because we have so many. And I think that means that it’s not preparing teachers for places of excellence. The training looks very different — starting with content. Teachers actually need — even kindergarten teachers — need to understand mathematics. The public doesn’t really understand this, but the mathematical understanding needs to be quite high.

Even if you’re explaining something like 3+2 equals 4+1, that equal sign and what that actually means is a kind of a profound mathematical concept. And that is, in a way, algebraic equation. And so, you need to have content mastery. And if you’re a kindergarten teacher or let’s say a third-grade teacher, you need to know where the kids have come from, what does K-2 look like? But you also have to have some idea content-wise of what middle school looks like. And you not only need that on the content side, but you need it on the child development side.

When you encounter kids for a long period of time — five- and six-year-olds — you understand the kinds of mistakes they make. And if you spend a lot of time with pre-adolescents, they have certain misconceptions that you have to understand as a teacher. And that really helps you be a better teacher. And it’s both on the academic side, but it also is socially and emotionally, and how they think about moral choices and moral character. And you can be so much better at the job if you understand that, and that takes a lot of training.

The state teachers union just put out a report claiming that charters have massive cash reserves and shouldn’t be asking the state for more funding. Any thoughts on that?

I haven’t seen the report yet, but I can say that it is profoundly unfair and disingenuous for the unions to go to Albany every year asking for massive increases [in state funding for education] and for them to impose a freeze, which was scheduled to sunset this year. Why should a public charter kindergartner be worth less than a district kindergartner? I’m a parent and, in fact, I could be a parent of a district fifth-grader and a public charter kindergartner. I want my kids to get the same level of resources.

But don’t charter schools have their own funding streams — from foundations and donations?

So does the PTA of P.S. 6. And so does Brooklyn Tech … So district public schools raise money privately. The mayor raises money privately for the district schools. Yes, we raise — the charter sector — some limited funds privately, but I don’t see that as a moral justification for capping our funding on top of an institutionalized inequity. Charter schools get, depending on how you count and the nature of the school, somewhere between 63 and 75 cents on the dollar. And that was built into the formula and the unions promoted that kind of inequity. Then in 2009, [the state] froze the formula. That is just patently unfair to kids and families.

Shifting gears, some charter networks have abandoned “no excuses” discipline in recent years. Are you ever tempted to rethink your approach?

We were never a “no excuses” school. That’s a really important point. We are a progressive school with an emphasis on magical learning, engagement, talent, development, art, music, dance. That’s not the kind of school we are. We do have uniforms. And, as you know, I have publicly supported and defended suspensions. The mayor now apparently agrees with me, finally, and has reversed himself.

Well, somewhat.

He made them illegal in the New York City school system — you could not suspend children K-2 and now you can. So that’s a pretty big reversal and he was pressured, ironically, to do that by the teachers union.

But his overall thrust is still away from suspensions. He sees them as a last resort.

We agree on that, too. We don’t use suspensions as a first resort. There are many systems of classroom management. But if you have a kid who stabs another kid with a scissor, and you’re the parent of that kid, I think you’re going to feel pretty strongly that that is such a violent act. Or let’s say your child gets bitten, which happens very commonly, you’re going to feel that going into a buddy classroom or not getting as many stars and all the various complex systems of management, that that may not be sufficient.

Suspensions are one of many, many tools in the tool kit and we believe that it is not fair to the other children in the classroom or the teacher to have a violent child disrupting the learning of all. And so we suspend, and we suspend to make it clear to that child and the parents that this is not OK. And we stand by those policies.

an intervention

Struggling Aurora elementary school gets creative to improve — but bigger changes may be coming

First graders at Paris Elementary in Aurora use toys and light pointers to help focus while reading individually. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When a fifth-grade boy was having trouble waking up in the morning and getting to school on time, officials at his Aurora school, just a block away, came up with an idea.

They gave the student a buddy — another fifth grader who lives two doors down. The boy agreed to knock on his classmate’s door every morning so the two could walk to school together.

“We had to get creative,” said Shannon Blackard, the interim principal of Paris Elementary. “He became more motivated to get to school on time.”

That buddy system is part of a broader push that has led to better attendance at the school — one emphasis to boost student achievement under a district improvement plan already in place. But bigger changes may soon be coming to Paris Elementary.

The 363-student school has logged five straight years of low performance, triggering the next step in Aurora Public Schools’ system for intervening in low-performing schools. District officials this fall put out a “request for information” from interested parties — which could include charter schools and consultants — seeking ideas for more aggressive steps for improvement.

After this week’s deadline to respond passes, the district will review the responses and ask the school board to vote on recommendations as soon as next month. It will be one of the first significant decisions for the seven-member board since four teachers-union backed candidates won election last month. Those new members have questioned some of the district’s reform efforts.

Superintendent Rico Munn created the district’s framework for intervening in low-performing schools after taking over the role in 2013.

Paris Elementary is not the first school to reach five years of low performance, but it stands apart because it is already under a district-approved innovation plan. That plan gave the school more flexibility in budgeting and setting the school calendar, and in making hiring decisions.

Speaking at a September school board meeting about schools facing turnaround, Munn characterized the recommendation for Paris Elementary as “the most high-profile.”

The district essentially is trying to step in before the state forces its hand.

On its fifth year of priority improvement, one of the lowest ratings the state gives, Paris is one year away from being on the list of schools requiring state action if it doesn’t improve. This year, the state did assign more points to the school in the ratings compared to last year, but not enough for the school to jump up into a higher category of ratings.

The school is a block away from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and is surrounded by apartments and multi-family housing. Every one of the students who attends the school qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Eight of every 10 are learning English as a second language. The students come from 16 different countries.

The school’s principal left the role at the beginning of the school year, leaving a district official to step in for a while before an assistant principal was named interim principal for the year.

School officials at Paris, including Blackard, the interim principal, are optimistic that current work at the school is already helping.

For instance, school-level data shows that the number of students reading at grade level this December has more than doubled school-wide compared to the same time last year. The improvements are at every grade level except kindergarten. And for the students that aren’t on grade level, school teams are now meeting regularly to come up with plans for how to help each one catch up.

Improvements are showing in math classrooms, too. Using a new math curriculum, third grade students in one classroom were excitedly engaged last week in an activity to see if they could guess how much a bag of crackers weighed and if they could use the scale to test it.

Early indications for attendance are also positive. The number of students who are chronically absent has dropped by 50 percent. This year so far, 11 percent of students are labeled chronically absent, down from 22.1 percent last year.

Blackard said she isn’t aware of the district’s plans to recommend possible changes to Paris, but said that she expects the school is on track to make improvements anyway.

“I’m very confident,” Blackard said. “We are very focused.”

When Munn discussed the timeline for district recommendations with the school board in September, he described a balancing act between giving schools time to make improvements while stepping in early enough to roll out changes in time when necessary.

“The question is how do we respond, so that we both don’t over-act but don’t react too late,” Munn said.

The district’s framework for dealing with low-performing schools prompts the district to intervene in schools that earn the lowest quality ratings by the state, increasing the level of intervention by the number of years on the clock. Here’s how it works:

When Paris had reached three years of low performance, part of the district’s plan called for the school to adopt the innovation plan and join a so-called innovation zone in northwest Aurora. Along with providing the flexibility of innovation status, the zone is meant to give its five schools the chance to work together and learn from each other.

If the school doesn’t improve enough by next year, the state’s options could include suggesting school closure or asking a charter school or outside group to take over.

Aurora officials have said they want to be proactive about improving schools before they are directed to make changes by the state.

Last year only Aurora Central High School was on the state’s watchlist facing state sanctions. In that case, using the same framework for responding to low-performing schools, district officials were already rolling out an innovation plan giving the school flexibility for changes before the state stepped in.

State officials and state board members recognized the district’s initiative and gave the district a chance to continue rolling out the plan to see if it would result in improvements.

In another case when the district was following the same playbook, the district in 2015 recommended converting low-performing Fletcher Community School into a charter school. The district tapped the Denver network Rocky Mountain Prep, which had responded to a request for information.

After the decision, Fletcher showed some improvements in test scores. This year, Fletcher’s quality ratings showed enough improvement to get off the state’s radar, even before the charter has fully taken over the school. Some teachers and union officials point to that as evidence that the district might have acted too soon instead of considering other options and allowing those efforts to show improvement.

“It’s not that you can’t ultimately get to that conclusion, the question is how do you examine it publicly,” said Bruce Wilcox, union president. “We’re not part of the conversation right now.”

model of inclusion

New York City is placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes. But do they actually feel included?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Terell Richards languished at the public middle school in Queens for students with severe disabilities that he attended a few years ago.

It wasn’t just that he found the work so easy he sometimes fell asleep in the back of the classroom, his sister, Kya, said. It was also that he felt so out of place he would sometimes dissolve into tears.

“Just crying and saying how much he just felt like he was in the wrong place and completely lost,” said Kya, who helped her brother, now 19 years old, switch to a private school for students with special needs.

Now, New York City — and districts across the country — have started sending more students like Terell into classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers. But while some research has shown students with disabilities can perform better in mixed-ability settings, a crucial concern has been whether the new environment makes students with disabilities actually feel less isolated and out-of-place.

A new first-of-its-kind study based on surveys of more than 250,000 New York City middle-school students between 2007 and 2012 tries to answer that question.

The study comes with some important caveats: The surveys are conducted annually by the education department, meaning they weren’t written by the study’s authors nor did they oversee how they were administered. Also, the survey period ended just as the city was beginning its major push to move most students with disabilities out of separate classrooms.

It finds that middle-school students with disabilities tend to feel welcomed in schools with non-disabled peers, though their experiences vary by their type of disability. But, more surprisingly, special-needs students in separate classes don’t feel more excluded.

The study, which was funded by the Spencer Foundation, is set to appear in the peer-reviewed journal, Educational Researcher. Here are three big takeaways:

Students with disabilities generally feel included in mainstream schools.

The study tracks whether students feel included at over 500 traditional schools by looking at how students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers responded to five questions from the city’s annual survey: whether students feel welcome at school, whether students with disabilities are included in school activities, if teachers know students’ names, whether students are bullied, and whether they see harassment.

Generally, students with disabilities reported slightly higher levels of inclusion in school activities than non-disabled students, and feel only marginally less welcomed — though they also reported slightly higher levels of bullying and harassment.

About 60 percent of students with special needs either agreed or strongly agreed that students with disabilities are included in all school activities, about two percentage points higher than non-disabled students. A slightly smaller share of special needs students felt welcomed at school compared to students without disabilities — though 92 percent said they felt welcomed. (The patterns are relatively consistent even when controlling for differences in student characteristics like gender, race, or socioeconomic status.)

Advocates said they were both surprised and encouraged by those findings.

“We do worry that in the hands of an unskilled teacher that kids will not necessarily feel welcomed and they’ll still be separated out and made to feel different” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children. “It’s pretty exciting to me to see that’s not necessarily true.”

Feelings of inclusion vary widely by disability type.

Although students with disabilities generally reported feeling about as included and welcomed as their peers, there are significant differences based on the type of disability a student has.

Those who were classified as having an “emotional disturbance” — often students who have significant behavioral problems — felt among the least included. They were about 4 percentage points less likely to report feeling welcome or included, compared to non-disabled students, and were also more likely to report harassment than students in any other disability category.

“The emotional disturbance kids are the ones who stand out in their classrooms,” said Leanna Stiefel, the study’s lead author and an economics professor at New York University, adding that they may feel less included because their disabilities are more difficult to hide.

But students with “low-incidence” disabilities such as multiple handicaps, autism, or intellectual disabilities reported more positive feelings than any other group. They were about 10 percentage points more likely than non-disabled peers to report that their schools include students with disabilities, and were slightly more likely to report feeling welcomed.

Students who are segregated based on ability don’t necessarily feel excluded.

Surprisingly, it made little difference whether students with disabilities were in “self-contained” classes — essentially classes comprised only of students with disabilities — or were in classrooms that included non-disabled peers: Both groups reported similar feelings of inclusion. (The findings don’t include students in District 75, a separate set of schools that are even less inclusive, since the schools themselves are only for students with disabilities.)

Moroff, the special education advocate, said the finding surprised her and noted it could reflect that students in more segregated settings aren’t necessarily aware of more inclusive models.

“It’s very possible there that there’s a level of interaction they’re not having,” Moroff said, “that they don’t even expect to be taking place.”