Politics & Policy

Revolt Against the Blob

New York City teachers' unions have created an indefensible system, and they don't appreciate being forced to defend it.

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Eva Moskowitz has become an expert at being hated.

It started a few years ago when the “bleeding-heart liberal,” as she describes herself, served on the New York City Council as chairwoman of the education committee. In an excess of public-spiritedness, she subjected the contract of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), as well as the contracts of the principals and custodians, to critical scrutiny at public hearings. Her life would never be the same.

Moskowitz still talks of those contracts with outraged astonishment. When she visited schools, she would ask what sounds like a set-up for a joke: “Does your custodian change your light bulbs?” The answer: Not quite. They would change the bulbs, but not the ballast — which starts the current in a fluorescent bulb — because that’s not in their contract.

Custodians can paint the walls of a classroom only up to ten feet high, after which the official painters must take over. It’s like Christian sects squabbling over space in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

A teacher can be fired only after an elaborate arbitration procedure. Since the union approves the arbitrators, it will nix anyone who has been notably unforgiving of teacher malfeasance in the past. Only ten teachers were fired out of 55,000 tenured teachers in 2008.

All of this is indefensible, and the unions didn’t appreciate being forced to defend it. Some of Moskowitz’s witnesses backed out for fear of their jobs. “I felt like I was in a Godfather movie,” she says.

The UFT took its revenge by defeating her in a race for Manhattan borough president in 2005. But it is not yet rid of this meddlesome woman. As the hard-charging CEO of the Harlem Success Academy, a network of four — soon to be seven — charter schools, she is on a righteous mission to demonstrate how education can work unencumbered by the insane constraints of the established system.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish, she says, when you design your schools “around teaching and learning and don’t think of yourself as an employment program for grown-ups.”

Almost all of Harlem Success’s students are black or Latino, and three-quarters qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Last year, 100 percent of Harlem Success’s third-graders passed the standardized state math exam, and 95 percent passed the English test, far outpacing the local school districts and ranking the school 32nd among all of New York state’s 3,500 public schools.

For Moskowitz, it’s the result of “high behavioral and high academic expectations.” For her critics, it’s another reason to hate her. The union imports activists to protest her schools. Last year, a charming mob greeted Harlem Success children arriving for the first day of school with chants of “Don’t be fooled, abort charter schools.”

This union bullying is a thread throughout the affecting new documentary The Lottery, which follows four Harlem families who enter the annual, heartbreakingly oversubscribed lottery to get their kids into Harlem Success. Newark mayor Cory Booker says he can no longer attend such events because they are so sad for the kids who don’t make it. Anyone watching The Lottery who doesn’t carry a UFT membership card will feel the same way.

Moskowitz didn’t set out to be a union target. “I’m not a Milton Friedman,” she says. “I just think kids are getting screwed by a system that’s horrible.” She is now part of a nationwide revolt against the union-dominated education blob, running the gamut from liberal reformers like her on the left to fiscal conservatives like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey on the right. For the unions, it should be a worrisome sign that you can engage in a conspiracy against the public interest for only so long before creating a backlash.

As a Harlem Success parent said over and over again in a rejoinder to protesters outside one of the schools: “My baby is learning.” Courtesy of the education establishment’s Public Enemy Number One.

Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.


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