U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) joined Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and other colleagues in introducing a resolution “Supporting the goals and ideals of National Charter Schools Week,” April 30-May 4, and issued the following statement:
“One of my last official acts as U.S. Secretary of Education in 1992 was to write a letter to every school superintendent in America urging them to create charter schools. I saw these charter schools as ways to remove burdensome rules, regulations, and overhead so that teachers could have more opportunities to use their good judgment to help children and so parents could have more choices of schools.”
Today, there are over 4,000 charter schools serving more than 1.15 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Over half of these schools report having waiting lists, averaging 166 students.
I am pleased that 12 charter schools have opened in Tennessee since passage of the State's charter school law in 2002. Ten of these charter schools are located in Memphis, where they enjoy critical support from local school officials, dedicated private partners, and philanthropic organizations.
Options for Memphis students range from programs for elementary students that stress mastery of reading, math, and foreign language skills to middle schools focused on health sciences and business. High school options include charter schools that emphasize science, liberal arts, or visual and performing arts.
I had an opportunity to visit one of these outstanding charter schools, the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE), which was the first charter school established in Tennessee. MASE provides an academically challenging program to prepare at-risk students for college through an intensive math, science, engineering, and technology curriculum in grades 7-9, including the first 9th grade AP Biology class in the state. The school was established as an innovative public/private initiative aimed not only at training a well-educated workforce for the city's rapidly growing bioscience industry, but also helping students excel in a technology-based environment, regardless of which career path they choose.
I am impressed by the school's clear record of achievement. By the end of eighth grade, MASE students – who were failing or at risk of failing in their previous schools – more than doubled their pass rates on State reading, math and science tests compared to their achievement in sixth grade prior to entering MASE. Last year, MASE was the second highest performing school, public or charter, in Memphis, and a University of Memphis study found that MASE seventh graders scored better on the state math assessment than similar students in public schools.
Charter schools play a unique role in public education by offering students a variety of options to meet their different learning needs and styles. They vary in specific mission and focus, but not in their commitment to excellence and preparing students to succeed. In return for autonomy and freedom from burdensome regulations and policies, they accept strict accountability for academic and fiscal success. If charter schools fail to educate their students well and meet the goals of their charters, they are closed.
I expect that we will see charter schools continue to expand across the nation as word of their success spreads. Five years ago, the President signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which contains several programs that support charter school development, and provides school districts with the option of converting low-performing schools into charter schools. As we prepare to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, we'll take a close look at how these programs are performing to ensure that the Federal Government is doing everything it can to help create and sustain viable, high-achieving charter schools.”
Alexander sits on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is the Ranking Republican member of the Subcommittee on Children and Families. On Wednesday Alexander and Landrieu both received “Legislative Champions” awards from the District of Columbia Association of Chartered Public Schools. The two senators recently launched the Senate Charter School Caucus.