“There were chains on the toilet paper,” Eva Moskowitz recalls. Her eyes narrow and her lips purse at the memory. “I kid you not. Chains!” It is 10 in the morning, and Moskowitz has been working since 4:30 am. Although she’s had only two of her five or so daily cups of coffee, she looks terrifyingly alert, dressed in a crisp navy blue pleated wool skirt with a matching vest buttoned over a starched white shirt, her hands—the fingernails painted blue—clasped on the table in front of her as she holds forth on the sorry state of America’s public schools. It is the problem that has engulfed her life—as has her campaign to fix it.
The founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools, one of the nation’s top charter school groups, Moskowitz is sitting in the exceedingly tidy principal’s office of Success’s flagship school in Harlem. She’s 50 but at five foot two so petite she could almost pass for a student were it not for the four-inch burgundy heels she is wearing. It’s a cold day, but her legs are bare. Moskowitz rarely wears stockings, even in the winter—a waste of valuable time, she says, to put them on in the morning. Her shoulder-length brown hair is also ready-to-wear, air dried on the job, held back by the tortoiseshell glasses perched on her head.
When she discovered the shackled toilet paper—the chain running through the cardboard tube and attached to the dispenser—in the bathroom of a public elementary school where one of her charters would soon be sharing space, Moskowitz was angry but not surprised. To her, it was just another grim sign of the “dysfunction,” “deep educational suffering” and “hopelessness” of the New York City public school system. But she would not tolerate this at Success. Oh, no. Not. In. One. Of. Her. Schools. Moskowitz immediately cornered the custodian. “I told him, ‘We do not chain our toilet paper,’ ” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Well, how do you expect it to stay there?’ I said, ‘We will teach our children that they don’t steal the toilet paper, they don’t throw it on the ceiling, they don’t drop it down the toilet. You will take the chains off.’ And he said, ‘Lady, are you sure?’ We had a whole scuffle.” Moskowitz did liberate the toilet paper—as she has done before, in other schools. “Some of the custodians will say no,” she says. “And I tell them, ‘If I have to, I will Clip. Those. Chains. Myself.’ ”
A college professor turned politician, Moskowitz is now an internationally known educator who has almost single-handedly created a mini school system, a charter network of 32 schools with 9,000 students in four of New York City’s five boroughs. She is also a leader—and among the most controversial in the country—in a movement that is at the fiery center of one of the most important national debates today: what to do about America’s ailing public schools.
Put to the Test
Few would argue that the American educational system is in crisis, with its spiraling costs, crumbling buildings and students who lag behind their peers around the world. According to the most recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, the U.S. ranks 27th in math, 20th in science and 17th in reading—but fifth in the amount of money spent per pupil. The situation, experts say, is dire for our country’s youth and economic future.