She is a former New York City councilwoman who infuriated both the city Department of Education and the teachers’ union with her questioning as chair of the council’s education committee.
Supporters point to some of the state’s highest test scores at her first Harlem campus, opened in 2006, and its emphasis on science, the arts and chess.
Critics say she’s a politician at heart and she’s been dinged for making too much money.
In Denver on Friday, Moskowitz sat down with Ed News Colorado to talk about the challenges ahead for the nation’s charter schools, the controversy over co-location or putting charter programs in district buildings and recent studies describing segregation in charter schools.
Ed News: Charter schools seem to be as controversial today as they were when they were created more than a decade ago in many states. In Denver, a school board member announced Thursday that he planned to seek a moratorium on any new schools. Board member Arturo Jimenez says he is not anti-charter but his move, if successful, could hurt charters more as they have made up most of the city’s new schools. Why do you think charters are still so hotly debated?
Moskowitz: I think what’s happened is two things. First, you just have many more charter schools and so their volume is greater. And of course you now have parents who are … not universally satisfied with the results but, compared to their district schools, they have a completely different level of satisfaction. So the threat of charters in a way is much greater than it was at the beginning of the experiment. The experiment is working with, to be fair, bad spots. I mean all charters are not good.
And I always say to people, my own investment is not in charters per se but parental choice. Because charters are the thing now, but maybe someone will come up with some new delivery system. And if that turns out to be better, we shouldn’t stick to charters. Having a charter doesn’t mean you will get it right, it means you have the freedom to get it right.
Ed News: Do you think the Obama administration’s focus on charters – including them in the Race to the Top grant competition, for example – has accelerated concerns about charters?
Moskowitz: Yeah. I think putting three quarters of a billion dollars on the table which states desperately want, they’d want it even if we weren’t in bad fiscal times but now particularly so, and to only be able to get it if you were friendly to reform on a whole host of specific ways, I think has brought the fight out onto the street as it were. It was always there, maybe not as voluminous, but now it’s very public.
Ed News: The Obama administration actually backed off of its charter school push somewhat in Race to the Top, perhaps because of concerns raised about the ability of charter operators to rapidly replicate their schools. Are those concerns justified?
Moskowitz: The problem with this whole thing is that it’s a little tautological. If we make it very difficult for suppliers to open up charter schools, then yes, they will find replication very difficult. But if you embrace good public policies like a kid is a kid is a kid and therefore the funding should be the same, why would elected officials or parents or anyone else, why would they care what the delivery system is? As long as the school is excellent and as long as it is public, and from my perspective I embrace parent choice so I think parochial schools need to be in the mix and all sorts of schools need to be in the mix.
But from a public policy point of view, you will have a lot more replicators if you embrace equal funding, if you looked at public school buildings as not belonging to the district … they belong to the public. If a district school is great, the superintendent – or chancellor whatever your structure is – should say this person runs a great district school and they should get a building because they are great. And you should say, if this person runs a great charter school therefore they should be in a building, possibly even co-located.
Is it difficult to replicate? The answer is yes, but the politics make it far more difficult. So if you want more replicators, you have to not put obstacles that are completely unnecessary and arbitrary, that are just the product of politics and have nothing to do with teaching and learning, in the way.
Ed News: State law in Ohio allows a school district to claim the test scores of a charter school if they are housed in a district building. Putting a high-performing charter with a low-performing traditional program could boost its scores, which might ease the pain of co-location, something you’ve dealt with in New York. Would you support that policy?
Moskowitz: I am utterly opposed to that. It runs completely counter to accountability. I just think that’s bad for children. I get that it’s a bribe and it might make it go down easier but I think you have to be careful which quid pro quo you’re willing to embrace.
Ed News: A couple of recent studies have come out critical of segregation in charter schools. Is that important to you?
Moskowitz: That criticism is very disingenuous because, on the one hand, charters get criticized for not being accessible enough and not reflecting the community. In New York, for example, charters are criticized for serving the elite and being part of gentrification. But the charter school population is above 97 percent minority. Of our four schools, we have 1,400 kids, we have 3, maybe 4, white kids and one Asian child.
Having said that, I think there’s a tendency in the charter school movement to celebrate a lack of socio-economic diversity. Because it’s more virtuous if you are serving the poorest of the poor. If one school has 50 percent poverty and another has 75 percent poverty, the 75 percent poverty is somehow better. I don’t view it that way. I think we need many more charters that have socio-economic integration. I also think that we need to get charter schools into more affluent districts because I think many middle-class and upper middle-class parents think their schools are better than they are … their schools are very complacent.
I believe in diversity in schools. When parents call us and they ask about diversity, I know that they’re white. And what they’re asking is, how many white kids are in the school? I would like to get to a point where consumers are asking about the quality of the education, whether they’re white or black and so forth. But look, if you put a school in Harlem … we are reflective of the community. And the other factor here is we really want to be a neighborhood school so we’re somewhat subject to the racial and socio-economic segregation of the city and that’s hard to change.
I think we will change it eventually because our program is so appealing to middle-class families. We teach science five days a week starting in kindergarten, we’re tremendous believers in the arts, we do more field trips than any school in the country that I’ve been able to discover … Whether people can put their racial discomforts aside, I do not know. And right now my focus is just on excellent schools and letting the customers figure out what they want.
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-478-4573.