Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on May 7, 2014
I am here to support the introduction of a bill I am cosponsoring, the Expanding Opportunity Through Quality Charter Schools Act.
Charter schools are about freedom for teachers, choices for parents, and more and better opportunities for students.
I gave the weekly address for the Republican Party on Easter Weekend, and I said that, instead of mandating things for you to do, government should enable you to create a happier, safer, more prosperous life.
This bill is just the kind of proposal that enables people. It enables parents to help their children get a real opportunity by choosing better schools for them to attend. It enables students to learn and succeed. It enables teachers to succeed by giving them the freedom to use their firsthand knowledge.
And it enables administrators to succeed by freeing them from bureaucratic mandates and giving them the chance to use their good judgment.
The bill would continue the federal charter schools program, which since 1994 has given grants to states to start new charter schools. It would make improvements to that program to ensure that those funds are used as effectively as possible to increase the number of high-quality charter schools.
Specifically this bill would invest more federal funds in the replication and expansion of high-quality charter schools with a proven record of success, while still giving states the flexibility to invest in innovative new models.
The bill would continue federal support for non-profit organizations which help charter schools find suitable facilities, while also encouraging states to assist charter schools in this task.
It would provide those hard-working and creative educators seeking to open charter schools with greater flexibility in how they use federal startup grants, for example by allowing them to use the funds for transportation or for facilities improvements if that is what they decide is the best use of funds.
Finally, this legislation would encourage states to provide charter schools with the support they need to be successful and to hold them accountable when they fail to demonstrate positive results.
Last summer, Senator Rand Paul and I sat in a room with the parents who had been able to get their child into a charter school in Nashville, where 600 students were left on the waiting list.
It was an emotional experience to hear these parents talk about their child getting this opportunity, to hear the students talk about how well they’re doing, and also to hear from the teachers who spend their lives helping these students.
Charter schools are public schools stripped of many federal, state and union rules and constraints placed on traditional public schools. The money the state government would ordinarily spend on their district school follows each child to the charter school instead.
Charter schools cannot charge tuition, and any student who wants to attend a charter school may do so if space is available.
If more students want to attend than can be accommodated, the charter school must use a lottery to decide which students receive a seat.
Several years ago I visited the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, a charter school in Memphis. While most Memphis students were on spring break at the time, the sophomores I visited were in the classroom studying Advanced Placement biology.
Because the school’s teachers have the flexibility to do what’s best for their students, the school was open 12 hours a day and on Saturday mornings because many of these children did not have as much at home as others. And these children, who the year before had been at schools deemed “low-performing,” were succeeding.
These students were fortunate because their parents had the opportunity to choose this charter school, and their children were lucky enough to win a seat.
Across Tennessee, more than 15,000 students now have that same opportunity to attend one of 68 charter schools – and they are thriving as a result.
A recent study by Stanford University found that, on average, Tennessee students attending charter schools gain the equivalent of 86 additional days of instruction in reading and 72 additional days of instruction in math each year than do students attending district schools.
In other words, they make almost a year-and-a-half’s worth of progress in a single school year.
About 60 percent of students attending charter schools in Tennessee are low-income. More than 90 percent are African American or Hispanic.
In other words, charter schools in Tennessee are making a difference for those students who have traditionally been least well served by our nation’s public schools.
We’ve come a long way since 1992, when, in my last act as U.S. Education Secretary under George H.W. Bush, I sent a letter to every school superintendent across the country, urging them to consider replicating the early successes of charter schools in Minnesota – which were then called “start-from-scratch schools.”
At the time, there were only a dozen charter schools in existence. Today, there are well over 6,000, serving over 2.5 million students. Nearly 5 percent of all public schools students in the United States now attend charters.
Most important—the fact that should give great urgency to our effort here today—there are an estimated 580,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools throughout the nation.
That is because parents and students see that charter schools are working.
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