Jersey Jazzman: The Worst Argument For Charter Schools
Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy Charter Schools, has a book coming out. The timing is lousy, as she apparently praises the chairman of her board of directors, Dan Loeb, who is in a lot of hot water for saying something incredibly offensive and stupid.
But let me skip that and get to something Moskowitz reportedly writes in the upcoming book:
In the book, Moskowitz is less apologetic. Accusing the media of “sandbagging” her, Moskowitz devotes two full chapters to the journalists who she feels have been unfair to Success, including former Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, whose reporting on Success she calls “a sad waste of his talents,” and the Times’ Kate Taylor, whose investigative reports have revealed the harsh discipline meted out at some Success schools.
"Now I’m going to share with you some facts about Taylor and her editors that I fear may come across as an ad hominem attack but I hope you’ll ultimately conclude isn’t," Moskowitz writes.
She then reveals that Taylor attended a private high school, and that her editors either attended private schools or grew up in the suburbs, suggesting the Times’ journalists are incapable of understanding the black and Latino children who disproportionately attend Success schools. (Moskowitz attended Stuyvesant High School, the University of Pennsylvania, and received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins.)
Moskowitz reprints some of her email exchanges with Times editors defending Taylor and her reporting — and she ends one chapter ominously, by saying, “alas, Kate Taylor wasn’t done with us yet.”
A little background: Taylor was the reporter who broke the story about a teacher at Success Academy yelling at a first grade girl and ripping up her worksheet in front of her class. According to Taylor's story, the teacher's behavior is typical for SA. Gary Rubinstein, a veteran NYC teacher, reviewed many of SA's videos -- which have since been scrubbed -- and found that while nothing approached the video Taylor and The NY Times published, they did highlight a teaching style that is "very robotic and cold."
Taylor also broke the "got-to-go-list" story, which confirmed the culling of "difficult" students of which SA had long been accused. But it's not like Taylor's stories were an unusual pieces of bad press for SA and Moskowitz: in 2015, The PBS News Hour ran a story by John Merrow that documented SA's harsh disciplinary practices for students as young as five years old (Moskowitz's response was to release a 10-year-old's disciplinary record; no, I'm not kidding).
The plain fact is that Moskowitz has had many critics, and SA has been under scrutiny for a long time. And why wouldn't it be? The organization engages in self-promotion at a level that would make Donald Trump blush.* And Moskowitz is truculence personified: she lives to do battle with the teachers union, the mayor, the press, and anyone else who gets in her way. Did she really think she could wage continuous war against her perceived enemies and no one would take a look inside her schools?
So now that Moskowitz and SA are under the microscope, what does she do? Engage in an ad hominem assault, hoping we don't call it what it is. Moskowitz wants us to dismiss all of Taylor's reporting because her parents enrolled her in a private school, and because her editors didn't grow up in the city; you can't get more ad hominem than that.
It's a line of attack I've seen charter cheerleaders use before: Chris Cerf, New Jersey's top charter booster, used it just the other day when he went after Save Our Schools New Jersey.
But it's a terrible argument in favor of charter schools, for at least two reasons:
First, and most obviously: what does Taylor's alma mater have to do with anything? Does it change the fact that one of Moskowitz's teachers was caught on camera yelling at a six-year-old? Does it change the fact that an SA principal drew up a "got-to-go" list? Does it change any of Taylor's subsequent reporting that suggests these were not, in fact, isolated incidents?
I obviously haven't read the book, but if the best Moskowitz can do to answer the charges against SA is to recount the education of the journalists who report on her schools... well, that pretty much speaks for itself, doesn't it?
Next: when Moskowitz accuses the Times staff of the crime of growing up outside of the city, she extends a comparison that she has made repeatedly: Success Academy vs. suburban schools. Just yesterday, when the New York State test scores were released, SA sent out a press release that explicitly compared its students' results to students in public schools on Long Island and in Westchester County.
To be clear: this comparison is wholly invalid (I'll try to get into detail about that later). But if Moskowitz is going to play this game, she ought to follow it through to its logical conclusion...
Would any parent sending their child to any of these five suburban districts put up with "got-to-go" lists? Would they be fine with SA's high suspension rates and high attrition rateswithout backfilling? Would they put up with a young teacher humiliating a first grader in front of her peers? Would they stand for their school district publishing the disciplinary record of a student? Would they be fine with special needs children being housed in schools that have clear resource disadvantages? Would they want their district to train their teachers to be "cold and robotic"? Would they be happy with a curriculum hyper-focused on test preparation?
Every time Eva Moskowitz brings up the suburbs, she's asking the rest of us to compare her version of schooling with the education offered in suburban schools. She thinks the test scores are proof that what she's offering is somehow equivalent to what affluent parents provide for their children. But it's transparently clear that Success Academy is in no way similar to the schools in Scarsdale. Yes, the test outcomes may be similar, or even better -- but the experience of schooling for children at SA would never, ever be tolerated in the leafy 'burbs of New York.
One interesting thing about the press release: note how it compares the per pupil spending of the Jericho school district to SA (I don't know what the source for Jericho is, but it doesn't match up with my data). I have no idea where SA got its $14,027 figure, but as I have pointed out repeatedly, that figure undoubtedly does not include the many structural financial advantages SA has over NYCDOE schools (and many other NYC charters, for that matter).
In addition to the very large sums SA pulls in from its philanthropic sponsors, and the expenses it saves by enrolling a student population less in need of extensive resources compared to its neighboring public schools, the chain free rides on higher public school salaries -- likely including the suburban schools to which SA compares itself.
But let's set all that aside to make a larger point:
New York State spends more money per pupil than any other state in the nation, even if we make appropriate adjustments for regional and other variations. But NY is also one of America's most inequitably funded statewide school systems. There are many reasons for this, including a host of "stealth inequities" baked into the state's funding formula. But there's also no question that the state's repeated refusal to fund its own law regarding school aid has left many districts, including New York City, without the funds they need to provide students with an adequate education.
Success Academy is always bragging on their allegedly large waitlists. But would their lists be nearly as long if every school in New York City was adequately and equitably funded? Would families still be clamoring to get their kids into SA if all NYC schools had small class sizes and healthy facilities?
There's no question that education is, to at least some extent, a positional good.** So if parents perceive a school like SA gives their kid a leg up on other children, many will gravitate toward it. But if SA's job is to sell themselves as the best option, they are certainly helped by Albany when the state refuses to follow its own law and provide the NYC public schools with what they need to do their job.
Which is, in the end, why comparisons to suburban schools will always be the worst argument urban charter schools can make -- because they only serve to point out that school "choice" will never be a substitute for equity.
I've taken some heat from those on "my side" before when I've said this, but I still believe it: there may well be a place for charter schools. But self-serving self-promoters like Moskowitz do us no favors when they try to convince us (and themselves) that what they are offering is somehow a cure for structural inequity.
ADDING: One rebuttal we often hear from charter supporters to those, like me, who think we need to address funding inequity immediately goes like this: "We can't wait! We need to do something about 'bad' urban schools right now!"
Why, then, do "successful" charter chains like Success Academy and KIPP take so long to grow their student populations once they've been approved? SA doesn't immediately fill its new schools with students of all grades; it starts with seats only in K and Grade 1 and then grows them one grade level at a time. In Camden, KIPP is growing its Lanning Square site -- a site that was supposed to be a public district school -- one grade at a time.
So where's the urgency?
It seems to me that, if we had the will, we could raise taxes on the wealthy immediately and put that money into existing public schools much more quickly than trying to create multiple, redundant, new networks of self-governing charters. We could fully fund the state aid laws in New York and New Jersey and everywhere else much faster than we could create "sector agnostic" school districts.
So why don't we do that?
It's funny -- You'd almost think that the reason the people who would have to pony up to fully fund our public schools love charter schools so much is that charter boosterism gets them off of the hook for having to pay more in taxes.
Not "ha-ha" funny, but... funny...
ADDING MORE: Oh, my... (I posted this kind of glibly earlier, but you should really read this: it's a Twitter thread about Success Academy's ties to the Trump administration put together by Leo Casey. It's a real eye-opener; I'm very curious to hear what the "liberal" members of SA's board will have to say about it...).
AND MORE: Jack Covey in the comments below reminds of this Politico story from 2016:
Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz did not approve of the finding — made by an “ethnographer” she hired to study her rapidly expanding charter school network — that some teachers at the high-performing network might be responding to the enormous pressure placed on them by cheating.
So Moskowitz, Success's combative founder, deployed senior managers to inform the staffer, Roy Germano, that he was banned from visiting schools for the remainder of the year. Moskowitz disparaged Germano to other employees, according to a memo written by Germano in July 2015 and obtained by POLITICO New York, and he was told to halt his research projects immediately.
Germano was fired last August, approximately a month after the report was completed, and is now a research scholar at New York University.
Germano’s reports and memo, along with a trove of other documents obtained by POLITICO — a separately commissioned internal draft risk assessment report, a compilation of exit interviews, and internal Success staffing records, among other documents — paint a picture of a growing enterprise facing serious institutional strain in the form of low staff morale, unusually high turnover, and the kind of stress that could drive teachers to exaggerate their students’ progress.
“It seems possible if not likely that some teacher cheating is occurring at Success on both internal assessments and state exams,” reads the July report by Germano, which was titled “Research Proposal: An Investigation into Possible Teacher Cheating.” [emphasis mine]
The response from SA is funny:
A spokesman for Success questioned Germano's findings, and said that the network uses an outside auditor to review its state exams.
"As to the allegations raised in the title of Mr. Germano’s memo, though he interviewed just 13 teachers out of 1,400 to justify that title, we conducted a thorough investigation and found no evidence to substantiate his speculation," Stefan Friedman, the spokesman, said in a statement. "Instead, we found teachers to be appropriately coaching students on do-nows, exit tickets and number story problems, an encouraged practice that helps students understand and master the material. Any suggestion that we utilized these methods -- or anything untoward -- on state standardized exams is categorically false and not supported by a scintilla of fact."
So why did Germano only interview 13 teachers?
“I am told Eva Moskowitz made disparaging comments about me in reaction to the report,” Germano wrote in the July memo, which was a follow-up to an initial report he wrote about cheating completed in May. “I was told to write a follow-up report that would essentially downplay my findings and told by [recently departed Success vice president] Keri Hoyt not to use the word ‘cheating’ in any future reports. Finally, I was told that I was banned from visiting schools for the remaining 4 weeks of the school year, and that I could only visit schools next year if accompanied by ‘a chaperone.’”(Hoyt could not be reached for comment for this story.)
Kinda hard to interview teachers when you're not allowed on campus...
* OK, I'm wrong: nothing could make Donald Trump blush.
** Sorry, can't find a free version. But I do want to talk more about this idea later...
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