What does it mean for parents and their children to be “consumers” of education?
The worst fate for a conservative is to be dependent on the state. The worst fate for a liberal is to be without opportunity. These two competing ideologies have informed a century of tinkering within American education. Conservatives have had occasional success chipping away at government spending, as President Trump seems poised to do. But it’s liberals like Success Academy founder and chief executive Eva Moskowitz who have managed a more inspired achievement: They’ve redefined the goals of educational policy. Once oriented toward equalizing resources, most school reformers these days worry about equalizing test scores and securing future opportunities for students. “If the day ever comes when I think something is okay simply because district schools do it, I hope my board fires me,” Moskowitz quotes herself saying in her memoir, The Education of Eva Moskowitz. “To achieve excellence, one must fight such compromise with every fiber of one’s being.”
“Excellence” is subjective, but the test scores from Success’s students are not. In August, the network of 46 charter schools announced that its students—predominantly children of color from low-income families—had outpaced some of New York State’s highest-performing (and wealthiest) districts on math and reading tests. Of course, those numbers come with a caveat: Success serves fewer students who are still learning English and students with disabilities than do traditional public schools, and it serves very few students with severe disabilities. Moskowitz urges those who would “try to explain away our results” to consider Bronx 2, a school in the network whose demographics are similar to nearby PS 55. Yet this is a misleading suggestion, because an overall comparison shows that Success still serves fewer students from both groups and therefore can maintain higher scores.
But facts don’t get in the way of the sense of righteousness that animates Moskowitz’s story. Our protagonist describes herself as a “redhead with the voracious appetite for data,” someone who has struggled all her life against complacent bureaucracy—represented mainly by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the largest teachers’ union in New York City, which, she argues, has prioritized adults’ needs over poor kids’ by advocating job protections for teachers.
In a book full of uphill battles, courtroom hearings, and repeated references to her own fiery personality, Moskowitz offers just one perfunctory scene of a young Eva in her imaginary classroom, reprimanding the neighborhood kids for their lack of effort. One of her first dates with her high-school sweetheart, Eric Grannis—who, like Moskowitz, attended the city’s prestigious Stuyvesant High—is characteristically unromantic: The highlight comes when he gets her to ask herself, “If I trusted private industry to make food, why not schools?” (Reader, she married him.)