As an ambitious, abrasive young councilwoman from the Upper East Side with a zeal for education reform, Eva Moskowitz presided over hearings scrutinizing the contracts of the teachers union and excoriating its officials for putting the interests of teachers ahead of students.
Those hearings, on everything from the union’s use of tenure to protect bad teachers to the bureaucracies behind longstanding public school mysteries—the lack of toilet paper, the flickering classroom lights—made her a marked woman, which she says she discovered after leaving the council to run for Manhattan borough president in 2005.
“They took me out,” said Moskowitz. “You underestimate the power of he unions at your own risk.”
In the end, Moskowitz lost to Scott Stringer, who had the endorsement of the union-backed Working Families Party. Stringer finished with 26 percent of the vote to Moskowitz’s 17 percent—a difference of about 12,000 votes.
And that was it.
At this year’s U.F.T. conference at the Hilton New York on May 9, union president Randi Weingarten told a large audience of teachers and elected officials, including all the candidates for comptroller, and representatives Maloney and Charlie Rangel, that “for reforms to be successful, they must be developed with teachers, not imposed on them.”
Weingarten punctuated her speech by crouching to the microphone and screaming, “No child was ever helped by blaming a teacher. No promising educator was ever recruited or enticed to stay by being threatened. And no school was ever turned around by demonizing its staff.”
Afterward, I asked her if she expected Moskowitz to serve as a cautionary tale to other politicians as they weigh the costs of opposing the union’s schools policy.
“We are fierce advocates of our core beliefs, and as a union we actually convince the public of what we are saying,” she said. “I am very proud of what we do in terms of our endorsements. There are some races where we are what separates people from winning and losing. But our endorsements are always based on the merits.”
A few minutes later, as Weingarten worked the room, I asked Assemblyman Denny Farrell the same thing.
“You surely don’t want them against you,” he said.
Moskowitz, however, is staking her political future on opposing them. She’d like to run for mayor, maybe in 2013, on a platform of education reform.
The 45-year-old Harlem resident (via Morningside Heights, where she grew up, and the Upper East Side) and mother of three has recently been conducting herself very much like a candidate in the middle of a campaign. She has denounced the “union-political-educational complex” in front of the City Council committee she once chaired, and she has debated Weingarten on New York 1. She supports mayoral control and urges an end to protections for tenured teachers.
Still, her prime concern these days is her day job running four charter schools in Harlem, the first of which opened in 2006, for a salary of more than $300,000 a year. She hopes to have 40 such schools over the next 10 years.
Colorful signs reading “Try and Try” “You Can Do It” and “Never Give Up” are taped alongside the staircase leading to Moskowitz’s newest school, the Harlem Success Academy, located on the third floor of P.S. 123 on West 140 Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. In the classrooms, Kindergarteners and first graders, dressed in private school-style uniforms—orange ties and blue jackets for the boys, gray dresses for the girls—have their correct answers rewarded with compliments. (“Kiss your brain!”)
In a hallway outside a science classroom that still smelled vaguely of the squid the children had dissected earlier in the month, Moskowitz, dressed in a politician’s uniform of pinstripe jacket, skirt, beige blouse, BlackBerry and cell phone holsters and pearls, took a seat in tiny school chair, and, once again, made her case.
“I’m a die-hard Democrat,” she said. “I’d like to believe that the Democratic Party believes in its principles. This is the party of social justice. This is the party of opportunity. This is the party of fighting for the little guy. And yet, on the issue of education, they are siding with the union bosses.”
In the long term, she said, it’s a disaster for the party.
“If the Democrats don’t catch up with their constituents they are going to be in deep trouble,” she said. “We haven’t had a Democrat running this city in nearly 20 years, and one of the reasons, I would argue, is because of its education policy. It’s going to hurt the party.”
Moskowitz argued that Democrats around the country had evolved on education. President Obama advocates greater accountability and performance-based pay for teachers and charter schools, and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a forceful proponent of mayoral control.
But according to Moskowitz, Democrats in New York City have been slow to adapt, frozen into place by an unwillingness to break with the U.F.T.
“It’s really hard to find people publicly who want to go against the union,” she said.
Instead of thinking of ways to improve education, she said, would-be reformers have to worry about “the U.F.T. trying to put us six feet under.”
“There will be enormous resources spent to defeat reformers,” Moskowitz said. “The union’s primary goal is to maintain the power and influence of the union. And that’s a somewhat easier mission than educating kids.”
Still, she says, she’s optimistic that time is on her side.
“I don’t think that I’m personally going to convince the city. The parents are going to do it by demanding what is in their self-interest,” she said.
“The dinosaurs looked pretty powerful before they became extinct.”