Statement of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - "A Fresh Start for New Orleans’ Children: Improving Education After Katrina"

Posted on July 14, 2006

New Orleans, Louisiana – U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development, made the following statement today at a field hearing in New Orleans to examine the progress of federal, state and local efforts to rebuild and transform the school system following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: “What if someone said, ‘Here’s a year and here’s the money. Now go and create one of the best public school systems in America.’ That almost never happens, but it’s happening right now here in New Orleans. “The city of New Orleans has the opportunity, because of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, to start from scratch. It also has the authority to do it because the state has basically taken over the majority of schools in New Orleans. And it has the money to do it. The federal government has put about $170 million new dollars this year into restarting Orleans Parish schools, plus another $44 million to create charter schools in New Orleans and all of Louisiana. The result is that 18 of the 25 New Orleans public schools open in the spring of this year were charter schools and 33 of 56 public schools that will be open next fall will be charter schools. “A charter school is simply a public school that frees parents and teachers from administrative rules and regulations and empowers them to make the best possible decisions about educating children who choose to go to that school. Right now we’ve got about 3,600 schools in 40 states plus the District of Columbia, but in one year New Orleans will have become a leader in the charter school movement with 33 of its 56 public schools being charter schools. “Charter schools are accountable to their authorizing board, to the parents who can choose whether or not their children will attend them, and to the reporting requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act which monitor student achievement. “If I were to choose one single step the city of New Orleans could take, not just to rebuild itself, but to establish itself as a leading city in America for the next 30 years, it would be to have as a goal creating the best big-city public schools in America and that’s clearly within its grasp because of this charter school opportunity. New Orleans could be a magnet for talented people and good jobs. This effort could be a symbol of New Orleans’ willingness to think big and boldly and lead the country. “My biggest concerns are the following: One, that the city and the state will not think big enough. Two, that they will not think long-term enough. And three, that over time, they will restrict rather than expand the authority of individual charter schools. America’s colleges and universities are the best in the world because they have a lot of autonomy and a lot of freedom. Our public schools are among the most restrictive institutions in America. So most of the states have charter school laws that are too restrictive and they are charter schools in name only. “What I’m hoping to do here today is, number one, to put a spotlight on what is the most important effort to create a large number of start-from-scratch new public schools in the country, and, number two, explore how we create a long-term environment to help it succeed.”