Charter School Leader Puzzled By 'Bizarre' Feud with Mayor

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Eva Moskowitz (right) observing a fourth grade math class at Harlem Success 4.

New York City has more than 180 privately managed public charter schools. But from recent media coverage, it's easy to think there is only one charter group led by one outspoken leader: Eva Moskowitz.

She and her Success Academy network have been making headlines since late February when Mayor Bill de Blasio blocked three new schools from her network from opening this fall as planned. The mayor said children with special needs would be adversely affected at one site and that the other two elementary schools were inappropriately placed inside high schools.

Moskowitz responded by suing the city and hitting the airwaves. Yet, in an interview with WNYC, she said the recent feud puzzled her.

"It really is bizarre and I think on some level, it defies an explanation," she said. "I say to myself, why is anyone going to go into solving the crisis of public education if there’s this much controversy. It’s strange."

Moskowitz said the mayor started the feud by singling out her charter network during last year's campaign. He criticized then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg for letting Moskowitz have "the run of the place," because she opened 22 Success Academy schools inside regular city schools, creating the largest local network of privately managed and publicly funded charter schools.

Yes, she benefited from the charter boom under Bloomberg, she said, but she was not the only one. 

"Achievement First got a lot of schools. Independent folks got schools. Over the last 12 years, the charter sector grew tremendously," she said. "But that doesn't mean that the process was easy. In fact, from my perspective, it was pushing a boulder up the hill."

She also strongly disagreed with the perception that she is overly aggressive in her tactics. 

"I’m an advocate and I stand up. But I think I’m very gracious," she said. "I try, even toward opponents, I do not personalize in the way that, frankly, others have personalized."

Here is the full interview:

And here are highlights: 

Q: Do your schools serve a fair share of children with special needs and English Language Learners?

A: We have about 15 percent special needs which is higher than many of our co-located. With English-language learners, we do have a few percentage points lower than the district and part of the explanation there is that our kids pass out of the NYSLAT test, which determines whether they are English-language learners. You should also understand that the district school gets $1,600 per English language learner student, so they have an enormous incentive to keep that population in that category. Whereas we educate English language learners, irrespective of funding.

Q: Do you serve children with the highest special needs who require classes of no more than six or 12 students per teacher?

A: When the Department of Education gives us space we serve 12:1:1 [classes of 12 students, one teacher and a paraprofessional], so at each one we have several 12:1:1 classes. It's been a real battle with the Department of Education because the department has discriminated against charters in not giving them space for 12:1:1 classes. I'm happy to show you all of my correspondence with the Department of Education on this subject. It's been an eight-year battle.

Q: Why are there fewer kids in the upper grades at her schools than lower grades over time?

A: We backfill up to third grade. In communities which are serving socio-disadvantaged children there is a lot of movement, both in the district school and the charter school. The theory you're positing that somehow our structure leads to [attrition]… The student attrition rates would have to be high if that were the case. It simply is low. And it's very interesting to me that reporters are not asking that question. In general, reporters are not asking the question of why is the student attrition rate so high at district schools, and what could the possible cause of that. And I would posit that perhaps it has to do with the quality of education that leads to the incredibly high rates of student attrition at district schools.

Q: What about de Blasio's statement that well-resourced charters like hers should pay rent for space inside district school buildings? 

A: Most of our schools are running deficits and they could not afford to pay rent. It would be devastating to the programs. But I think there's a larger issue. Why should they have to? We're a public school. Is Brooklyn Tech, which has a $13 million endowment for one school, going to pay rent? Or are only the schools that the mayor happens not to like - for reasons we can't understand - going to be charged rent? That would be patently unfair and it would be punishing children who do not deserve to be part of the mayor's vendetta.