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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Eva Moskowitz

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-21

Eva Moskowitz was born with a teacher's tassel.

She grew up near the precincts of Columbia University. Her father, Martin Moskowitz, was a well known mathematician. Her mother, Anita, was an art historian. Her brother Andre was so fluent in languages that he became an interpreter. The parents supplemented her school studies by home instruction.

And Ms. Moskowitz?

"I always thought of myself as a teacher," the executive director of the Harlem Success Charter School said.

That may explain why, even as a teenager at Stuyvesant High School, she immersed herself in her studies to the point that her parents often had to ask her to stop doing homework and, well, have a bit of fun.

Her idea of fun was to volunteer to produce the school's yearbook. Her enthusiasm for work was such that they made her editor.

At the University of Pennsylvania, her enthusiasm for work - beyond academics, of course - led her to become a research assistant at the library.

A bachelor's degree with top honors in history was inevitable. So was a master's degree. So was a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. So was an acclaimed book, "In Therapy We Trust: America's Obsession with Self Fulfillment" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), a history of America's obsession with psychological thinking and self-realization.

Such analysis came naturally to Ms. Moskowitz, not the least because she taught history at various institutions, including Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia, and the City University of New York. She was, in fact, a highly popular professor.

Her students found out that Ms. Moskowitz's unconventional teaching techniques did not translate into a laissez-faire view of their performance.

"I was always a demanding teacher," Ms. Moskowitz said. "I look for coherence in argument, I look for sharpness in writing, and I look for clarity of thought."

Ms. Moskowitz found that her love for the teaching life aside - notwithstanding its occasional frustrations - she yearned to get things in the society beyond the groves of academe.

So she contacted Fred Friendly, the legendary television producer and impresario, and eventually produced a documentary on what the women's movement meant to professional women who weren't necessarily activists.

"I took great pleasure in communicating to a broader audience," Ms. Moskowitz said.

She decided that she would extend her reach to that audience through politics.

Her husband, lawyer Eric Grannis, encouraged Ms. Moskowitz to run for the City Council from the Upper East Side in 1997.

"I called people in order to raise funds for four months - and no one called me back," Ms. Moskowitz said.

It took more than 15,000 telephone conversations for her to raise $250,000. Her opponent spent $1 million. Ms. Moskowitz lost.

"The idea of losing was unacceptable. It was a great experience - but, still, I'd run and I'd lost," Ms. Moskowitz said.

She did not lose when she ran again in 1999.

"I was brought up to try and try and not give up," Ms. Moskowitz said.

During her three terms in the 51-member City Council - the largest municipal council in America after Chicago - she needed to tap into that parental exhortation frequently.

"I held an old fashioned belief that public service was noble, that politics was an important profession," Ms. Moskowitz said.

Politics in New York was also rough, with a plethora of competing interests haranguing the City Council. Ms. Moskowitz focused on getting the city government to respond in a timely manner to citizens' requests for fixing problems as potholes.

"We were relentless, utterly relentless," Ms. Moskowitz said. "I wanted to ensure that the government got a pretty high level of customer satisfaction."

She also focused, of course, on education. She chaired its influential education committee which had oversight of the city's 1,456 public schools and their 1.25 million students and 85,000 teachers.

She became famous, not only at City Hall but around the city. Ms. Moskowitz held hearings on questions such as why, despite an annual budget of $15 billion, city schools often ran out of toilet paper.

"No topic was too small or too controversial for me," she said.

Ms. Moskowitz, in fact, became so controversial that some of the leaders of the United Federation of Teachers vowed to work against her when she decided to run for Manhattan borough president in 2005.

Her opponents prevailed, and Ms. Moskowitz was left to ponder her next professional moves.

It seemed only natural for her to re-enter New York's educational system. The concept of charter schools was gathering momentum. The state's 1998 Charter School Law stipulated that New York State could have up to 100 such schools; but only 85% of their funding could come from public sources.

So it was that on January 9 this year, Ms. Moskowitz, a mother of three young children, joined the Harlem Success Charter School.

Demand for the community for 155 admissions to kindergarten and the first grade was so high that Ms. Moskowitz had to hold a lottery. State law requires that if demand outpaces supply, all children must have an equal chance of attending. Nearly 500 parents applied for the school's inaugural class.

Also applying for the school's 12 teaching positions were 1,400 men and women. While union teachers get a starting salary of $43,000, Ms. Moskowitz is paying her teachers $48,000, plus benefits.

She expects to expand the school's program to the fifth grade over the next few years.

"I spent much of my time as chair of the Council's Education Committee trying to figure out where public education had gone wrong," Ms. Moskowitz said. "I now get to spend my time figuring out how to get it right. I am now free to make decisions that directly increase student achievement. I can decide to offer science five days a week, to hire the best teachers I can find and to fire them if they don't perform. I can decide to extend the school day or offer chess instruction.

"Charter schools provide the opportunity for educational innovation and experimentation, which is one of the many reasons I am such an avid supporter. I am fundamentally optimistic. I know that a city as great as New York can have a first-rate education system. We won't have a great city until we have great schools. I know New Yorkers can get this right. I plan to do my part to make this city the greatest on earth," she said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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