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Eva Moskowitz: I will work with Trump, but not as U.S. education secretary

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman

Eva Moskowitz, the hard-charging New York City charter school leader, said Thursday morning that she won’t serve as education secretary in a Donald Trump administration — but will support President-elect Trump’s education efforts.

She did not say if she was formally offered the post, but Trump officials confirmed that the two had met in Trump Tower on Wednesday.

“At this time I will not be entertaining any prospective opportunities,” Moskowitz told reporters at a previously planned press conference.

Moskowitz, a Democrat, said that while she voted for Hillary Clinton, her personal politics did not influence her decision not to pursue a job in a Trump administration. Instead, she said she wanted to focus her energy on Success Academy, the charter network she leads, and continuing to fight Mayor Bill de Blasio on his education work in New York City.

“If I left and went to D.C., who would keep their eyes on Mayor de Blasio?” she asked.

Moskowitz told reporters she will support Trump’s efforts to expand school choice — policies that steer public dollars toward alternatives to traditional public schools like charter schools and private school voucher programs. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to devote $20 billion in federal dollars toward supporting school choice efforts for poor students.

“This is one of the most powerful education reform ideas ever,” Moskowitz said of school choice. “I stand ready to support his efforts in any way I can. I will work with him and whoever he selects as next education secretary to increase educational opportunities for American families.”

Here are four key pieces of background about Moskowitz:

1. She runs New York City’s largest, highest-scoring, and most controversial network of charter schools.

Success Academy runs 41 schools and 14,000 students — essentially a mid-sized school district within New York City, made up of mostly low-income students of color.

The network is best known for its elementary and middle-schoolers’ high scores on state tests, and the schools have an intense focus on test preparation, with their huge pre-test pep rallies and down-to-the-minute planning. That approach has plenty of extremely vocal critics, but Moskowitz says it’s essential to setting kids up for success.

At a time when many charter networks are moving away from “no excuses” discipline, Moskowitz has stood by her network’s strict rules and policy of suspending young students. Earlier this year, a video of a Success Academy teacher yelling at a young student, released by the New York Times, sparked a national debate about what’s appropriate behavior for educators.

Success has also faced accusations that it pushes out high-needs students. The network has long denied that, but a Success Academy principal’s “Got to Go” list of student names reignited that debate last year.

Moskowitz is also known as an incredibly tough manager, who demands long days and full commitment from teachers and staff.

Success Academy is the brainchild of two New York City-based hedge fund managers, Joel Greenblatt and John Petry, who founded the charter school network and recruited Moskowitz as its founding leader.

2. Moskowitz has made a name for herself by fighting, publicly, with lots of people.

As a member of New York’s City Council, Moskowitz chaired the education committee and held contentious hearings castigating the teachers union and education department officials. The union helped defeat her bid for Manhattan borough president in 2005.

Since de Blasio came into office, Moskowitz and Success Academy have made a habit of protesting in front of City Hall, most recently to demand that more space be made available for charter schools in traditional public school buildings. She won a key victory in 2014, when the state passed a law requiring the city had to give charter schools space or pay their rent.

She also had a high-profile battle with de Blasio over whether Success had to follow the city’s rules in order to participate the city’s universal pre-K program. After a lengthy fight with the city and state, Success Academy lost — and then cancelled pre-K classes.

Moskowitz has many enemies, though it’s sometimes unclear whether it’s her style or the substance of her message that rubs people the wrong way. She acknowledged in 2009 that her approach isn’t designed to win friends.

“I think we have a moral obligation to identify schools that are not working for kids, and unfortunately there are a lot of them,” she told Chalkbeat. “If that’s disrespectful – if saying that a school is failing is offensive – I think that we can’t be politically correct and sacrifice children in the process.”

But United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who publicly criticized her as a potential choice for education secretary, takes issue with both what she’s saying about district schools and how she says it.

Moskowitz’s philosophy, according to Mulgrew, is “I’m going to take the best and therefore my school is the best.” He was alluding to accusations that Moskowitz does not serve a representative sample of students. Like other charter schools, admissions to Success happen by random lottery. But Mulgrew said Moskowitz nevertheless finds ways to work primarily with higher performers and students without special needs, an accusation Moskowitz has strenuously denied.

“That’s not the goal of education in this country,” Mulgrew said.

3. Moskowitz has big ambitions, but so far has remained focused on her NYC-based network of schools.

Moskowitz has been public for a decade about her interest in becoming New York City mayor. Last October, she even held a press conference to confirm that she wouldn’t run against Mayor de Blasio in 2017.

At that event, she said she wanted to focus on her growing network of charter schools. “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,” Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz has never tried to expand Success Academy outside of New York City by opening schools across the country, as networks like KIPP have done. But she’s a regular fixture at education-reform events and in Washington, growing her profile on the national stage.

In New York City, she has built herself a big political profile, organizing massive rallies with thousands of parents, students and teachers. That following has been growing more diverse in recent years, as Moskowitz has begun opening schools in gentrified neighborhoods, too.

4. Moskowitz aligns with Trump on “school choice” but not much else.

While Moskowitz is a strong proponent of school choice, she disagreed with Trump on several issues. While Trump called Common Core a “total disaster,” Moskowitz has supported the learning standards and frequently touted her students’ results on Common Core-aligned exams.

She also did not support Trump’s candidacy. The day after the presidential election last week, Moskowitz sent an email to Success Academy staff expressing concern about the election results and decrying the “hatred” that drove Donald Trump’s campaign.

“Personally, I’m upset,” Moskowitz wrote. “I believe in an America where we respect our differences and fight for the poor and overlooked.”

Yet Moskowitz said she is determined to support Trump now that he has been elected. “I am troubled by what I see as rooting for Trump’s failure because that is rooting for our own failure,” she said. Of efforts to improve education, she said, “it’s going to take a bipartisan effort. It’s going to take the citizenry. It’s going to take all of us.”

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to say that Trump officials confirmed the meeting with Moskowitz, but she herself did not.

game plan

After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
The State Capitol in Nashville is home to the Tennessee General Assembly.

The campaign to introduce school vouchers to Tennessee has come up short for so many years that supporters are looking closely at another voucher-like approach to give families more control over public funding for their children’s education.

Education savings accounts have gained traction in some other states and are viewed as an attractive alternative for Tennessee in the debate about parental choice.

And with the inauguration soon of a new governor who promised to give parents more education options for their kids, this approach would fit the bill — and even offer a longer menu of services than traditional vouchers would.

“I would like to help lead the charge,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and fierce voucher proponent, who this week was elected speaker pro tempore of Tennessee’s House of Representatives.

“Education freedom, if it’s done correctly, gives students opportunities to do better, and public schools rise to the occasion through competition. Everybody wins,” Dunn added.

Not so fast, say public school officials who view any kind of voucher program as a major step toward privatizing education.

“Outside interests pushing ‘school choice’ options have learned that when ideas like vouchers become toxic to the public, they can be repackaged as education savings accounts, which might be more palatable to lawmakers,” said Amy Frogge, a Nashville school board member who opposes vouchers.

Both approaches raise the same concerns, said Frogge, citing a drain of funding from public schools, increased student segregation, and a lack of accountability for students whose families choose that route.

Education savings accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to withdraw their children from public schools and receive a deposit of public funds into government-authorized accounts. The money could be used to cover everything from private school tuition and tutoring to homeschool materials and online learning programs.

A voucher is taxpayer money that’s restricted to paying for private school tuition and fees for eligible students.

For years, Tennessee lawmakers have tried to start a voucher program and came close in 2016 with legislation sponsored by Dunn. But an unlikely alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans have foiled every attempt.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
State Rep. Bill Dunn (center) looks straight ahead after tabling his voucher bill in 2016.

Dunn, who has since risen to the House’s No. 2 leadership position, thinks education savings accounts would be more appealing to rural legislators who see little local benefit in opening the door to vouchers in Tennessee.

“A voucher is dependent upon having a private school being available. But there’s more flexibility with an ESA and you could shop for a lot more educational services for your child no matter where you live,” he said, adding that a better educated workforce could lure more jobs to rural Tennessee.

A 2018 poll by the pro-voucher American Federation for Children found that voters are more open to voucher-like programs like education savings accounts  and “tax credit scholarships” than vouchers, even though all three would siphon off funding from public schools. That’s one reason that backers are avoiding the V-word and re-branding how they talk about “school choice.”

Leaders of the American Federation for Children say they wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation filed this year in Tennessee, whether for vouchers or education savings accounts.

“We’re supportive of both,” said state director Shaka Mitchell. “But because an ESA allows students’ education to be far more customized, I think it’s useful in some ways that a voucher isn’t.”


Do school vouchers work? Here’s what the research says


“School choice” advocates will have two powerful new allies in the governor’s office when Bill Lee is inaugurated on Jan. 19. The governor-elect has hired Tony Niknejad, former state director of the American Federation for Children, to be his policy director, while Brent Easley of TennesseeCAN, another pro-voucher group, is his legislative director.

But it’s uncertain whether Lee — a Williamson County businessman who won his first bid for office — will put his political muscle behind the divisive issue in his early months of governing, especially when he must develop his first proposed budget and a broader vision for his four-year administration.

PHOTO: Ned Jilton II/Kingsport Times-News
Bill Lee was elected Tennessee’s 50th governor in November and will take the oath of office on Jan. 19.

“There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet,” said Rep. Mark White of Memphis, who this week was named chairman of the House Education Committee.

One reason, he said, is accountability for recipients of education savings accounts and the services they choose.

“We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it,” White said. “If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.”

Tennessee already has one program that’s similar to education savings accounts. The state launched launched Individualized Education Accounts for students with certain disabilities in 2017, allowing families to receive up to $6,000 annually to pay for private educational services. This year, 137 students from 38 districts are participating, with 70 percent attending a private school and the rest homeschooled, according to the state’s most recent data.

“When we debated that limited-choice program, people got up and said it would be the end of the world and would destroy public education — but it hasn’t,” said Dunn.

Others point out that, although the state planned for more participants in the program, no one expected families to rush out of public schools. Anyone opting to use the accounts must waive their federal right to receive a “free and appropriate” public education. For students with disabilities, that usually costs far beyond the $6,000 a year allocated to participants.

One bill filed in the legislature’s first week seeks to expand the program to make more students eligible. Rep. Jay Reedy, a Republican from Erin, wants students who are already in private or home schools to be able to participate. Currently, families can apply only if their student is enrolled in public schools.

Full circle

On her first day as Denver superintendent, Susana Cordova visits the school where she was a student

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova addresses students at Barnum Elementary School on Jan. 7, her first day as Denver superintendent.

At a morning assembly marking the first day of Susana Cordova’s tenure as Denver schools superintendent, the most telling moment was not the speeches from current and former mayors pledging their support, or even the remarks from Cordova herself.

It was when Cordova whispered in the ear of third-grader Grace Sotelo. Grace was one of four students chosen to present Cordova with gifts, including a bouquet of flowers. Afterward, the third-grader stepped up for a brief turn at the microphone.

“Doctor — ” Grace said, then paused.

“Cordova,” the new superintendent whispered to her.

“Cordova,” Grace said. “We are proud of your success of being our — ”

“Superintendent,” Cordova whispered.

“Our superintendent,” Grace said. “We know you’ll be the best superintendent we’ve ever had.”

The interaction served as a reminder that the district’s new superintendent started her career in the classroom, teaching students like Grace.

The location of the event was also symbolic. It was held at the school that Cordova, a lifelong Denver resident, attended as a child: Barnum Elementary in southwest Denver. A printout of her fourth-grade school photo — straight-cut bangs, dimples, and a striped turtleneck — hung on a wall behind the risers.

PHOTO: Courtesy Denver Public Schools
Cordova in fourth grade

“When I was a student here at Barnum, one of my very favorite things to do was read,” Cordova told the first-, second-, and third-graders sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the gym floor.

“One of my favorite authors was a woman named Judy Blume. And she wrote a lot of good books. Maybe you’ve read some of them. But Judy Blume also said something that I think is really important. She said, ‘Our fingerprints don’t fade from the lives we touch.’

“That’s what education does. It touches lives. And I want to make sure that our fingerprints — all our fingerprints — are forever part of the story, so that our students are successful.”

Cordova, 52, officially assumed the role of superintendent of Denver Public Schools on Monday, making her the top boss of Colorado’s largest school district with about 93,000 students. Cordova was selected by the school board last month after a four-month national search. She succeeds Tom Boasberg, who served as superintendent for nearly 10 years.

Cordova was an internal candidate. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, she has worked for the district since 1989 as a teacher, principal, and district administrator. For the past two years, she served as deputy superintendent under Boasberg.

Cordova was the sole finalist for the top job, a decision that sparked accusations from some community members that the search was a sham. In choosing her, the school board noted her depth of experience, her willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, and how she fit many of the criteria students, parents, and teachers wanted in the next superintendent.

Among them: Cordova is an educator. The previous two superintendents came from the business world. She is also Latina. The previous two superintendents were white men. Only 25 percent of Denver students are white, while 54 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black.

Cordova is also bilingual in English and Spanish, and started her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher. Currently, more than a third of Denver students are learning English as a second language. The most common first language spoken by students is Spanish.

Denver students, on the whole, have made academic gains over the past decade. Many people credit the progress to controversial strategies such as replacing struggling schools.

But Cordova faces several big challenges as superintendent, including narrowing persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and those from wealthier ones.

Last year, 69 percent of Denver students from high- and middle-income families met expectations on state literacy tests, compared with just 27 percent of students from low-income families. About two-thirds of Denver students belong to the latter category.

While Cordova has emphasized the importance of closing those gaps, she said on Monday that her sole focus for the next two weeks will be reaching an agreement on teacher pay with the Denver teachers union. The two sides have been negotiating changes to the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp, for more than a year. The union has threatened to hold a strike vote if the two sides don’t reach an agreement by Jan. 18.

The union and the district are set to return to the negotiating table Tuesday for the start of several all-day bargaining sessions. Cordova said she plans to attend every one, a departure from her predecessor’s approach to contract negotiations.

“I’m very optimistic we can get to a good solution,” Cordova said in an interview following the event at Barnum. “My closest friends are DPS teachers. I deeply understand and know the complexities of what it means to be a teacher in the district.”

Toward the end of the interview, after the students had returned to class and the custodial staff was stacking the chairs, Cordova was approached by two women with district lanyards around their necks. They introduced themselves as teacher’s aides who’d worked for the district for more than 20 years each. One of them held out her cell phone.

“Could we have a picture with you?”

Yes, Cordova said. In the gymnasium of her old elementary school, festooned for the occasion with yellow and blue crepe paper, the new superintendent stood between them and smiled.