Liberal Reforms

A Conversation with Eva Moskowitz
Blog Post
June 13, 2006

Eva Moskowitz won election to the New York City Council in 1999 and spent the next six years roiling the city's educational waters as an outspoken member and chairman of the council's education committee.

A liberal Democrat, Moskowitz fought as a council member for such causes as environmental protection, gay and lesbian rights, tenant rights, and gun control. On education, she joined a growing number of Democrats nationwide who have broken ranks with traditional party positions on public education, challenging restrictive union contracts, wasteful spending, substandard curricula and a host of other problems in public education.

Moskowitz, a product of the New York City public schools who earned a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins University and then taught American history at the University of Virginia,Vanderbilt University, and the City University of New York, also championed charter schools and competition for students among schools, market-based reforms more often associated with conservatives.

Moskowitz did not seek reelection to her city council seat to run for the Manhattan borough presidency in 2005, but lost the race under heavy opposition from the United Federation of Teachers, the powerful New York City teachers union. Now she is launching a charter school in Harlem, a school, she says, that reflects the many lessons she learned from visiting 300 of the city's 1,456 public schools and holding over 125 public hearings during her time on the city council's education committee. Her 155-student Harlem Success Charter School, a K-8 school, has received 1,500 resumes for 12 teaching positions.

Moskowitz lives on Manhattan's Upper East Side with her husband and three young children, one of whom is school-aged and attends a neighborhood public elementary school. She spoke recently with Education Sector Co-Director Thomas Toch about the insights she gained into big city school systems during her tenure on the New York City Council, why she broke ranks with Democrats on public education, and how she plans to put her city council experiences to work in Harlem Success.

Education Sector: What attracted you to education policy?

Eva Moskowitz: My entire family is from the world of education. My grandmother was a typing teacher in the New York Cityschool system for years. My parents went to the city's public school system. I went to the public school system. I taught public school students in a program called Prep for Prep that prepared gifted minority children for independent schools. My task was to help students who were as many as three years behind kids in the independent school world, even though they were gifted. As a college professor—I have a Ph.D. in American history—I trained social studies teachers. So I got a sense of both public school kids and their teachers. And the performance of both was highly problematic, to say the least. In 1997 I ran for office.

ES: Why?

M: Because of public education. We had not a second-rate education system, but a tenth-rate system and I ran when it was politically incorrect to say that: you were a pariah if you said that there was a problem with the public schools. I remember a very prominent elected official advising me to never ever say during my campaign that there was a problem with public education. Criticizing the schools, he said, was the quickest way to not get elected.

ES: As a Democrat?

M: As a Democrat. I didn't know from Republicans. I was told as a Democrat that I had to be proud of public education. But I didn't follow that advice and I lost. But that was my reason for running. To me, one should be proud of an excellent system of public education, not a lousy one. I made 10,000 cold calls to raise a quarter of a million dollars to run for office. I didn't know wealthy people and I was running against a Republican billionaire. But I lost and then I ran a second time, against a different billionaire, with the same message that public education could be better and we shouldn't accept less than excellence.

ES: As a city councilwoman, your legislative initiatives included environmental protection, tenant rights, gay and lesbian rights, gun control—the work of a liberal.

M: When I'm in a room with conservatives I never feel like I agree with them, in fact I generally pretty strongly disagree. They have a punitive attitude toward poor people. They say they are compassionate, but the compassion seems to be missing often.

I feel a little bit homeless from a partisan perspective. I call myself a Democrat who has read Adam Smith, because I do think that it's important to think economically and when you think economically on general policy issues you of course realize that the market is fundamentally flawed, although it obviously has produced a lot of wealth in this nation, it's fundamentally flawed because not everyone can participate in it, and I have the old-fashioned view that government is supposed to provide a safety net for people who are unable to participate in the market and in that sense I suppose I'm a classic liberal.

But I also think government is supposed to solve problems not ignore them, and our education system in New York City, as well as around the nation, is fundamentally flawed and government has an obligation to propose new solutions to a problem that affects the economic opportunities of its citizens. We're not doing that fast enough.

Choice and Competition

ES: You have said that these new solutions should include choice and competition in public education. Why, as a liberal Democrat who believes that "the market is fundamentally flawed," do you embrace market-based reforms in public education?

M: I didn't always see that as the answer. My views have changed over time. But I now believe that the monopoly of public education is fundamentally insular, that it will not change without outside forces. And so innovation and competition are critical levers of reform.

ES: Why did you originally believe market-based reforms to be the best way to improve public education and why did your views change?

M: I was committed to our public education system and I couldn't understand why it couldn't be fixed. It seemed simply a question of political will, that people were not sufficiently committed. My experience growing up in the New York City public school system was that the problem was money. When I went to school, we played basketball at Stuyvesant High School without balls. We had to practice lay-ups without balls. No one thought about the fact that it was height of absurdity that we had to practice the form without the balls. It was just accepted that there was no money for balls. Fortunately I have never needed to do a lay-up in my professional life.

So I assumed that the problem here is that the system is starved for resources. But it's hard to conclude that when you've studied the school budget as closely as I have. It's true that the system needs more money, but money alone clearly is not going to solve the problem.

I had come to that general conclusion by the time I ran for office. One hundred and twenty-five city council hearings later, I am utterly convinced that the New York City school system as such is unfixable by tweaking from within. Our hope, our great hope, is innovation and competition. I think that will force system-wide change.

ES: The small schools movement is greatly increasing the choices available to parents in the New York City public school system by breaking the city's large high schools into many smaller ones. Do you see those schools as part of the competitive mix?

M: They are not to me as good as charter schools because they are still subject to a lot of the public school system's regulations and obstacles. But I think they are one of our greatest hopes in terms of reform from within.

Let me be very clear, I'm not suggesting giving up on reform from within. Children are still in that system, my children are in that system. Any way we can create competition from within or without will speed up the reform process. But I think we need to change the proportion of our effort and at least 50 percent of our work has to be on efforts outside the public school system.

ES: There are 1,000 schools and 1.2 million students in New York City. Is it reasonable to expect to create a parallel system for over half a million students? The cost of the physical plan for that many schools would be immense.

M: We don't have any choice, if the goal is radical reform and improvement.

ES: Even if you didn't go that far, even if you had the infrastructure that would allow 10 percent of the city's kids to go to charter schools, would that leverage change?

M: Absolutely.

Mayoral Control

ES: You were an early supporter of mayoral control in New York City. Why?

M: The mayor would blame the board for the problems in the public schools. The board would blame the bureaucracy. There was no one at the end of the line, just constant finger pointing. So I supported giving the mayor control over the schools. I never believed it was the silver bullet that the conservatives seemed to believe it was. It was simply an opportunity to get some level of "the buck stops here."

But I didn't anticipate the extent to which mayoral control put every educational policy decision on the mayoral clock. And I didn't anticipate that everything had to be good news about the system. I was frankly somewhat disappointed in the lack of honest brokering that went on vis-à-vis what the school system has accomplished [under Mayor Michael Bloomberg]. Any honest broker would conclude that celebrating improvements in the city's schools would be radically premature.

I understand it in the sense that I understand elections, but it made it very hard to have honest and real debates about what was going on. You had a sort of [Orwellian] 1984 situation at every press conference. The message was, "the chocolate ration is going up, the chocolate ration is going up," and anyone who disagreed was grandstanding.

ES: Would you support the introduction of mayoral control of schools in other big cities?

M: I would. In my mind education is the single most important local service government provides and the buck has got to stop somewhere. It is going to be flawed. But democracy is the best answer we've come up with, so it seems to me that mayors need to be responsible across the nation for the quality of the service. The quality of the garbage collection counts for people, the quality of snow removal. The quality of educational services needs to count too.

School Funding

ES: You support the Campaign for Fiscal Equity in New York City, an effort to ensure that kids don't have to do "ball-less lay-ups." Many conservatives who admire your enthusiasm for great choice and competition in public education have opposed the campaign.

M: Dalton or Trinity or Chapin [elite New York City private schools] spend $40,000-50,000 a year per kid. No parent who sends their kids to those schools is going to say, "You know, you could really do it for $22,000, why don't you cut the budget?" So money matters. Of course it matters. There's a relationship between quality and cost. It's not a one-to-one correspondence, but there is a relationship.

But cost is not rational in New York. If you just put more money into the schools, you wouldn't get the outcomes you want, and because there is no choice, no one would be able to leave. If Spence doesn't do a good job, people are going to go to Chapin. There isn't that opportunity on a large scale in the New York Cityschool system.

Teachers Unions

ES: You held high-profile hearings as a city council member of the union contracts in the New York school system. Why?

M: I was aggressive on every topic. My models were the Watergate hearings, which I watched as a child, and the Iran-Contra hearings. I had held two years of hearings on a wide range of topics—art education, science, math, social studies, on operational issues ranging from procurement to the school construction authority. But there was an elephant in the room and everybody told me that you couldn't talk about the elephant in the room.

I remember the custodial issues as a kid growing up. Every time we proposed a club or a meeting after school we couldn't use the building because it involved the custodian contract. I didn't know the details, but I knew the custodian contract had a lot to do with when the building could be used or not used. My primary reason for becoming an elected official was to improve public education and I faced a choice: was I going to ignore the elephant in the room, or was I going to take risks and talk about it?

ES: Risks meaning political risks because of the unions' power?

M: Career-stopper. Everybody agreed that confronting the unions—the teachers union, the custodians union, the principals unions—was a career-stopper.

ES: Again, as a Democrat.

M: As a Democrat, yes. Maybe a Democrat could take on the unions in parts of the Midwest or maybe in the South, but in New York City it's the third rail of politics. If you take on not only labor unions but the most powerful labor union in the city of New York, it has political consequences. My career has ended as an elected official [as a result of intense opposition by the city's education unions to her borough president candidacy], so the proof is in the pudding. Ironically, Randi Weingarten, the president of the NYC teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, accused me of holding the union hearings to forward my political career.

But I decided that since public education was my raison d'etre for going into politics, I had to take on the issue. So I decided to have five days of hearings looking at the three most important contracts.

This required an enormous amount of preparation. The contracts are not written for lay people and the teachers union contract with all of the side agreements is somewhere between 650 and 800 pages. I spent three months reading, re-reading, trying to understand what it actually says. The custodians union contract is 150 pages with complicated algorithms for how a custodian gets paid based on the number of escalators in a school building, whether there is a swimming pool. To try and understand those formulas was quite a challenge.

Amazingly, I had to fight like mad to establish my right as the chair of the city council education committee to look into the contracts. The mayor and the labor unions charged that I was interfering with the collective bargaining process. But these were public documents signed by public officials. Not only did I have a right, I had a duty to share with the public what was in those documents. They affect every aspect of schooling—everything. From the length of the school day to the subjects taught. Any change in the school system has to go through this collective-bargaining process, so I can't think of more important documents for the public to understand if they want to understand public education.

ES: What did you conclude from your research and your hearings?

M: The teacher union contract is bad. Bad for women and families because it contains no maternity/paternity benefits. Bad for children because of the work rules. Teachers are prohibited under the contract from lunch room duty. But any teacher who's ever taught in the New York City system knows that children who are being poorly supervised in the lunchroom come back with inappropriate energy levels and require a good 20 minutes to settle down. And so you lose 20 minutes of instruction right there.

At the high school level, the contract limits teacher-student contact to 3.75 hours a day. Why would we want to limit instructional contact? For middle class kids competing againstChina, 3.75 hours is utterly insufficient. Poor kids need even more time to learn.

The contract is also bad for teachers. There's no differential pay. Good teachers get paid the same as bad ones.

ES: What about teacher licensure?

M: It's an unmitigated disaster. It's an incredibly low bar. I once compared the portion of the city's fourth grade science test to the science portion of the fourth grade teacher-certification exam. There were 19 science-related questions on the "common branch" certification covering fourth grade. I compared the 19 questions to the city's fourth grade science exam. Which do you think was harder? The exam the kids have to take.

My view is that we should be tracking individual teacher achievement based on student achievement, so that we know who the effective teachers are. Ultimately, it's collective and so you know it doesn't help us that much if the second grade teacher is phenomenal but the third grade teacher is not, we've got to have a collective solution to the problem.

I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it's a conspiracy between labor and management. Neither of them treat teachers like professionals. There is an assembly line concept of teachers imbedded in every single page of that 800 page document. Punching in and out of work, complicated formulas for how much they are going to be paid. Teachers are professionals, they are white collar workers. The job is not done until the job is done. That was the origin of professionalization in this country. But labor and management have colluded to de-professionalize teachers. Punching clocks and negotiating student-teacher contact hours are examples of that.

It happened because of money. Management didn't have money to pay teachers decent salaries, so they de-professionalized the job and labor agreed, in exchange for not getting the money that teachers should be paid. It was a terrible bargain.

ES: What should the UFT be doing to professionalize teaching?

M: Promoting everything from paid maternity and paternity leave to better parking to differential pay. All this requires changing the contract.

Harlem Success Charter School

ES: What are you going to do differently in your charter school from the prevailing way of doing things in the city's district schools?

M: Everything. I joke with people that my expertise lies in what not to do. The most important thing is the professional treatment of teachers. We are going to pay our teachers at Harlem Success a minimum of $5,000 more than the DOE, but that's only the beginning. It's not only about finances, we give our teachers a finder's fee if they find another teacher for us that we hire. We offer paid maternity, paternity benefits, but that's the bare minimum.

I have devoted I can't tell you how much time to the seemingly simple issue of photocopying, which is a nightmare in the New York City schools. It's such a working conditions issue. Schools copy a lot—instructional materials, announcements, flyers. At Harlem Success we are getting the most expensive, best copier maintenance contract we can so that our copy machine never breaks down. Do you know what teachers have to do to get something copied in the New York City school system? Forms, procedures. If we don't trust our teachers to photocopy we certainly shouldn't trust them to teach our children. That is nuts, totally, totally nuts, and teachers and the unions should be outraged.

Communications is also a working conditions issue and all of our teachers will have laptops and cell phones.

I'm doing science very differently. If you are lucky, your child gets science once a week for half a year in one of the city's good elementary schools. We are not going to be able to compete withChina with only one class a week for half a year. Harlem Success will be the only public school in New York City where, starting in kindergarten, kids get science five days a week. It's the only area in which I've hired a separate cluster teacher because it's so important. It's important both for international competition and because it's the kind of higher-order abstract thinking that American education falls so short on in general.

Our daily schedule would also be outside the union contract. We go from 8:10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Fridays we go until 2:00 p.m. And we have about 10 more instructional days a year than the New York City calendar. Our kids will get 2.4 additional years of instruction by the time they graduate over what they would get in their neighborhood public schools.

Then there's art and sports. I have held so many hearings on art and sports. The notion that we are going to either have happy children or well educated children without art and sports is a fallacy. I know it from motherhood, I know it from going into schools—there are so many schools in NYC where the kids don't even get recess, let alone sports. That's terrible. At Harlem Success kids will have more than eight hours a week of art and sports, combined.

I asked teachers in New York City about how to organize Harlem Success' school day. I realized that I couldn't even pose the questions if I accepted the city's teacher collective bargaining contract as a given. For example, I went around asking art teachers, really good art teachers in the city's school system, what length of time should my art periods be? And they said, Oh God, that's so great you are asking that question, you should do one hour and 15 minutes, not two 45-minute periods. I asked why and they said that you can't achieve any instructional momentum in the 45-minute classes: first you have to get out the supplies, then you have to clean up, so you have only 25 minutes for work. It ends up taking five weeks to finish projects, versus two weeks with a longer class once a week.

I am even more critical of the collective bargaining contract now that I'm trying to start a school and have to make a hundred decisions a day. The contract forces you to have this preordained template that doesn't put kids first. What I'm able to do in this charter school is always able to ask, "What is best for teaching and learning?" We are also able to be so much more bottom-up in our decision-making. We consult our teachers on everything.

ES: What is your role at Harlem Success?

M: Technically everybody reports to me, though I have a principal and assistant principal. Yet in a certain way—and this is important to understand—I work for everybody else, I am about support. That is what I do all day. We had a parent orientation and we did assessment of all of our kindergartners on Saturday. Afterwards, I personally called all 80 kindergarten families to make sure that they knew. Our level of customer service is extraordinarily high. All the parents have the cell phone number of every adult at the school. We give out the list.

ES: Do you plan to stay at Harlem Success for a long time?

M: I plan to run for mayor at some point. I have not determined when I'm going to do that, but it is my long-term goal. I love the city and believe that a city well run really improves the lives of New Yorkers in very tangible ways. So that's my long-term aspiration. But I can't do that until I get education out of my system a little bit. It's hard to worry about garbage collection and all the other things that would require my attention when I'm worrying about this problem. When I feel I can move on to other things I will, but not until then.

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