She Breaks Rules While Expecting Students to Follow Them

A Memoir
By Eva Moskowitz

How would Eva Moskowitz have fared as an impudent young girl in one of her own charter schools? This is just one of the many unplumbed questions prompted by her new memoir. Founder of the extensive Success Academy charter-school chain, former New York City councilwoman, mother of three, Moskowitz has famously made a virtue — one might even say a brand — of her defiance. New York City’s public-school system has been her proving ground, and she has devoted herself to reforming what she sees as its bureaucratic idiocies and its codified inefficiencies, refusing to submit to any authority that she deems insufficiently worthy (except in those instances it serves her to do so). She is the woman who took a call from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg during her nephew’s bar mitzvah to threaten him with a negative press campaign. As a child, she was so outraged at a teacher who accused her of lying — and who also, she takes care to note, consumed milk and cookies at her desk — that she handed the teacher a note, written by her father, that said, “Ms. ____, screw you.”

The note was never intended for delivery, but no matter. Such an impulsive display of hostility would not, presumably, be tolerated at any of her Success Academy schools, where discipline and conformity are values of the highest order. Children, called “scholars,” are expected to understand that “following the rules is a condition of being in school.” Every teacher is required to follow Success’s pedagogical formula and “not create chaos by marching to the beat of her own drum.” And yet this double standard — in which Moskowitz celebrates her own feisty disobedience while attributing the success of the students in her schools to their dutiful compliance — is never explored, leaving a reader to puzzle over whether Moskowitz has noticed it at all. The question of who in this tinderbox of a society is valued for their anti-authoritarian moxie and who for their obeisance is difficult, and charged, but it is one that the founder of a chain of 46 schools, which educate mostly poor children of color, might be expected to consider.

“The Education of Eva Moskowitz” advertises itself as memoir, but it does not deliver on what memoirs promise, which is to say, self-revelation. Indeed, it hardly offers any kind of revelation at all. This is a shame, because the super-politicized world of education policy could use a sympathetic interpreter right now. Are charter schools the ultimate evil or the optimal solution? Do teachers’ unions protect kids or preserve entitlements? Are standardized tests useful, or are they racist, classist and corrosive to morale? There are no right (or single) answers to these questions, but a smart memoir from a passionate and iconoclastic advocate for children might serve as one insightful guide through the morass.

Moskowitz is not the person for this job. Her instinct is to be adamant (and the inverse, thin-skinned). She is adamantly in favor of standardized tests. She is adamantly against teachers’ unions. She believes that a recent movement toward “community schools,” in which poor kids can get medical, nutritional and other services at school, is “nonsense,” and she rebuts the whole concept with an example of a Success student who was “hospitalized with a stroke but able to do her homework.”

Fueled by defensiveness and injured vanity, “The Education of Eva Moskowitz” has all the self-knowledge of a war plan. Devoted primarily to re-litigating old skirmishes — against the unions, the Department of Education, and Mayors Bloomberg and especially de Blasio — Moskowitz dredges up old emails and hearings transcripts to win points in long-forgotten contretemps, and then, in an effort at intimacy, intersperses them with shallow yet grandiose anecdotes from her personal life. Regarding a European bicycle tour: “This gave us the opportunity to meet people that most tourists wouldn’t encounter, such as farmers.” Regarding her wedding: “While I suppose that, just as all infants are cute, all weddings are beautiful, I do think there was something especially magical about ours.” Regarding her husband’s bout with mental illness: “By now, Eric had recovered from his depression.” Regarding 9/11: “It was surreal and horrifying,” she writes. “Eric and I decided to get away from the city for the weekend.”

Moskowitz reserves special antipathy for the press, especially those journalists who she feels have treated her and her Success schools unfairly. Of Juan González at The Daily News, she writes: “I’d never encountered one who was as willing as González to print outright lies to advance his ideological agenda.” And in a lengthy section dedicated to coverage of Success by The New York Times, Moskowitz descends to ridicule, accusing the reporter Kate Taylor of attending “a private school that offered sailing and golf,” thereby implying that with such a background Taylor (and her editors) could not fairly assess her charter chain’s achievements. For Moskowitz to accuse The Times of elitism while she taps some of America’s most eager capitalists to help fund her schools (including the billionaire family of Betsy DeVos, now secretary of education) is yet another contradiction that goes unmarked.

What, then, is the true aim of this book? A clue is buried in its final chapters. “Part of me would love to be mayor for the simple reason that I love my city.” Moskowitz declined to enter the 2017 New York City mayoral race, but clearly the idea has taken hold. The cumulative effect of this volume, however, is to suggest that Moskowitz lacks both the strategic dispassion and intellectual breadth for a big political job. The Success Academy schools have been very successful in certain ways for certain kids, but unless their founder can talk clearly and sympathetically about the tangle of dysfunctions besetting public schools — including segregation, poverty, class, inequality, the effects of wealthy donors and unions on the education system and the disparate expectations of the stakeholders within it — she will always be just a local crusader with a chip on her shoulder.