The Most Polarizing Education Reformer in New York City

Back in 2004, The New York Times described Eva Moskowitz as having “sharp elbows.” At the time, Moskowitz represented Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side on New York’s City Council and had, according to the Times profile, emerged as one of the council’s most influential members. Those sharp elbows helped her get things done, whether that meant replacing plastic newspaper racks with stylish fiberglass ones or taking on powerful teachers’ unions in the name of improving the city’s beleaguered public schools. They inevitably also positioned her as a perennial antagonist—someone who inspires so much vitriol in her opponents that she has, for more than a decade, contended with an endless list of disparaging labels. Public-school teachers, for example, got in the habit of calling her “Evil Moskowitz.”

Now, as the founder and CEO of Success Academy, the largest charter-school network in New York City, the criticism is as loud as ever. Success has produced stellar academic outcomes, even winning the prestigious Broad Prize this year for its successes in closing race- and income-based achievement gaps at its 45-plus schools.

But it has also come under intense scrutiny in recent years amid student-discipline scandals and allegations that it employs discriminatory enrollment strategies. Success has, teachers unions and their allies insist, come to epitomize why market-based approaches to education—school choice, in other worlds—end up hurting the kids most in need of quality learning opportunities.

Moskowtiz is used to all the flak. But based on how much space she devotes in her new memoir to analyzing and defending herself against those labels, it’s clear the backlash she’s faced hardly leaves her unfazed. Her reputation as a pugnacious politician-turned-charter-school founder is something that, she argues, is completely at odds with who she truly is as a person. Bad impressions, however, have long been a sacrifice she’s willing to make when it comes to New York City’s neediest children, who she’s convinced will remain stuck in the poverty cycle as long as the city’s moneyed interests (read: powerful politicians and the unions they court) maintain control over what happens in its district schools.

“I was a persona non grata with the Democratic machine,” she writes in The Education of Eva Moskowitz, but “it hadn’t always been this way. … My ability to build coalitions was precisely what had allowed me to pass so many laws. My views on the labor contracts, however, were diametrically opposed to those of my colleagues so I’d inevitably alienated them when I’d taken on this issue.” This recounting embodies the leadership style she practices to this day. A lifelong Democrat whose schools primarily serve students of color, including many undocumented immigrants, she was a vocal defender of Donald Trump after the election and was even on the short list to head up the Education Department; when the nomination for education secretary went to the highly unpopular Betsy DeVos, Moskowitz was quick to endorse her. (In a note to parents and staff last month, Moskowitz distanced herself from the president, citing his response to the fatal white supremacist riots in Charlottesville.)

The Education of Eva Moskowitz offers the most intimate look to date into perhaps the nation’s most high-profile education reformer, a woman who is as infamous as she is admired. She walks readers through all the obstacles that almost prevented Success from coming to fruition, and all the obstacles—from a barrage of bad press to a vicious rivalry with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio—that it has had to overcome since.

I recently spoke to Moskowitz about her memoir, her crusade to reform education, and her efforts to change the often-cynical narrative about that crusade. A lightly edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Read more at The Atlantic.