Politics & Policy

How a Democratic New York City Councilwoman Became a Crusader for School Choice

Eva Moskowitz (Portrait via Facebook; cover courtesy HarperCollins)
Shocked by her firsthand experience of the city’s failing public schools, the author put her career on the line to do something about the problem.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Education of Eva Moskowitz: A Memoir. It is reprinted here with permission.

I was hopeful my Education Committee’s hearings would contribute to real changes in the teachers’-union contract, which had expired in May 2003 and was now being renegotiated. Throughout 2003 and 2004, the city held firm, refusing to sign a contract that preserved “lockstep pay, seniority, and life tenure,” which, said Chancellor of New York City Schools Joel Klein, were “handcuffs” that prevented him from properly managing the system. In June 2005, however, the United Federation of Teachers brought 20,000 teachers to a rally at Madison Square Garden, where Randy Weingarten demanded a new contract and Mayor Bloomberg’s prospective Democratic opponents in the upcoming mayoral election spoke. The message was obvious: Sign a new contract or we’ll back your Democratic opponent. In October, the city capitulated, signing a new contract with none of the fundamental reforms sought by Klein.

This development accelerated a shift in my views on public education. I already supported charter schools, but I’d nonetheless held the conventional view that most public schools would and should be district run. I’d begun, however, to question that view. Every year, more children attended charter schools and you didn’t have to be Einstein to see that there would come a day when most did if this trend continued. Maybe, I thought, this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Maybe a public-school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.

This change of heart wasn’t sudden. I didn’t go to sleep one night believing in traditional public schools and wake up the next morning believing in charters. Rather, my views on school choice evolved gradually from profound skepticism, to open-mindedness, to cautious support, and were the products of decades of experience with public schools as a student and then as an elected official.

At the very first school I attended, PS 36 in Harlem, I saw just how poorly some students were being educated. Through my work with Cambodian refugees in high school, I saw that good public education was largely reserved for those who could afford expensive housing. As a council member, I increasingly came to understand how the public-school system’s design contributed to segregation and inequality.

While it won’t come as news to most readers of this book that schools in poor communities tend to be worse, understand that there is a difference between reading about this in the newspaper or a book and coming face-to-face with a mother who is desperate because she knows her son isn’t learning anything at the failing school he is attending. Understand that there is a difference between knowing in the abstract that there are schools at which only 5 percent of the children are reading proficiently and actually visiting such a school and seeing hundreds of children who are just as precious to their parents as mine are to me but who you know won’t have a fair chance in life because of the inadequate education they are receiving. Firsthand experiences like these cause you to reexamine your views carefully, to make absolutely certain they aren’t based on faulty assumptions or prejudices or wishful thinking.

As a council member, I’d also become increasingly aware of the school system’s dysfunction. In this book, I’ve recounted some of what I saw: textbooks that arrived halfway through the school year; construction mishaps; forcing prospective teachers to waste half a day getting fingerprinted. Know, however, that these are just a few selected examples of a mountain of evidence that came to my attention from 100 hearings, 300 school visits, and thousands of parent complaints that came to me as chair of the Education Committee.

Moreover, even at their best, the district schools weren’t innovative or well run, a point made by the late Albert Shanker, who was head of the American Federation of Teachers:

Public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve; it more resembles the communist economy than our market economy.

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

Some felt the problem was that the people entering the teaching profession tended to be weak, but I’d seen plenty of idealistic and intelligent teachers on my school visits. The system’s dysfunction, however, took its toll on them. Some became so dispirited or went to a suburban school; others burned out and became mediocre clock punchers; some heroically soldiered on, but even they barely became the teachers they could have been.

Others claimed the solution was to increase education funds and reduce class size. There are limits, however, to how much we can afford to spend on education, and it’s not clear it would make much of a difference anyway. Take PS 241, which is co-located with one of our schools. In the 2014–2015 school year, it had an average size of just 12.7 students and spent $4,239,478 on one hundred kids, $42,394 per student, but only two of those students passed the reading test that year.

In order to have any chance at fixing this system, I came to believe, we needed to radically change the labor contracts, which in turn required having elected officials who were willing to disagree with the United Federation of Teachers and stand up for children. I hoped to advance that goal by showing that even if you were independent of the United Federation of Teachers, you could survive politically. Obviously, that plan failed and the result was the opposite of what I’d hoped. Elected officials were more afraid of the United Federation of Teachers than ever and would tell Chancellor Klein, “I ain’t gonna get Eva’d.”

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