Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): Charter schools

Posted on May 9, 2012

Madam President, this week is the 13th annual National Charter Schools Week. On Tuesday, Senator Landrieu of Louisiana and I joined with 10 other Senators in introducing a resolution praising teachers, administrators, parents, and students who are part of the charter school movement across our country.


Let me begin by explaining exactly what a charter school is because sometimes we stand here in the Senate and start talking without explaining the subject. A charter school is the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering. I visited there 4 years ago during spring break. Most of the students in Memphis were somewhere else, but not the students at the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering. These were sophomores studying advanced placement biology. These were children who had been in other schools the year before that were deemed to be low-performing schools. In other words, these were among the students in Memphis considered least likely to succeed. But they were fortunate. They were allowed to go to this charter school. Their parents had chosen this charter school.


Here is what was different about the school. The union rules, the State rules, and the Federal rules had been relaxed so that the teachers had the freedom to do what they thought those children needed in that school. In this case, many of these children didn't have as much at home as other children did, so the teachers decided that the school ought to be open 12 hours a day, that it ought to be open on Saturday morning, and that it ought to be open more weeks a year than other schools. And the students were there on spring break studying advanced placement biology, which is not what many sophomores do in many schools in this country. And these children were succeeding.


The charter school was able to pay some teachers more than others. It was able to have some classes that were smaller than others. It meant that some scheduled classes were longer than others and some children got special attention that needed it.

You may say: Well, that makes so much common sense. Why aren't teachers able to do that in every public school in America? That is a very good question because, in a way, every one of our 100,000 public schools in America should be a charter school in the sense that the real definition of a charter school is one that gives teachers the freedom to use their own good sense and judgment with the children whom parents choose to send to that school.


I have a personal interest in charter schools. Twenty years ago, I was the U.S. Secretary of Education. I was in my final year. The last thing I did in 1992 as Secretary was to write a letter to all the school superintendents in America urging them to try what a small number of Minnesota public schools were doing in what they were then calling startup schools. These were the first charter schools in America. Their origin was primarily from those who were part of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota. But at the same time, on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum, there were many who were calling for getting rid of teacher union rules and State rules and regulations that were making it harder for teachers to teach. So there was a happy convergence of support for this idea of startup schools.


I remember that Albert Shanker, the late head of the American Federation of Teachers, supported the idea from the beginning. But many of those in the teachers unions opposed him. Many of those in the education establishment didn't like it. They were afraid of what might happen.


Well, here is what has happened over the last 20 years. Instead of a handful of schools in Minnesota, we now have about 5,600 charter schools in America today. About 5 percent of all of our public schools are charter schools.


The way they work is very simple. They are public schools, and the money the State and local government would ordinarily spend on their district school follows each child to the charter school. So it is just a public school organized in a different way.


The first one, as I said, was in 1992 -- City Academy High School in St. Paul, MN. In 1997, President Clinton called for creating 3,000 charter schools by 2002. This was after the first President Bush had called for creating "break the mold" schools in every school district in America -- another name for what we call charter schools today. And then in 2002 the second President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. Today, 41 States have charter schools, and the schools serve more than 2 million students -- about 4 percent of the 50 million students in our public schools today.


I am proud to say that our own State of Tennessee has had a strong charter school movement since 2002, and only recently has the State charter law been amended to remove the cap on the number of schools in the State and limitations on student eligibility. We currently have 40 charter schools operating in Tennessee -- 25 in Memphis and 11 in Nashville -- with nearly 10,000 students attending these schools. Our First to the Top plan -- Tennessee won the President's Race to the Top plan for education -- included $14 million to expand high-performing charter schools. The Achievement School District, which Governor Bill Haslam created, has approved three charter operators to turn around priority schools that are failing, and we can expect more to be approved next year.


So the question often is asked, well, are charter schools really helping students? And in some ways the jury is still out. Charter schools are relatively new, and there are many factors that go into the success of a student in a school, the No. 1 factor being what happens at home. But there are good and encouraging indications.


A recent study by Stanford University found that two-thirds of the charter schools in Tennessee have been improving student performance in reading or math at a faster rate than competing traditional district public schools. Sixty-seven percent of charter schools in Tennessee have been improving the overall growth of their students for the last 3 years.


But that means that 30 percent of the charter schools weren't performing as well or were performing worse. So the fact is, not every charter school is going to be successful. Not every startup business is successful. But we have a model in our country that reminds us of what can happen when we have autonomous institutions where administrators and teachers have the privilege of using their own judgment and common sense to make things happen, and we call that higher education.


In the United States of America, we have around 6,000 institutions of higher education. There are all kinds -- Yeshiva University, Nashville Auto Diesel College, Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee, Notre Dame, or Stanford. There are many different kinds -- for-profit, nonprofit, public, nonpublic. But they are all largely autonomous and the students choose the schools they attend. And what has happened? Everyone in the world agrees that we have not only the best colleges in America, but we have almost all of the very best colleges.


So our goal should be to gradually increase the number of charter schools. At the same time, it is important that there should be some accountability. I know that in Tennessee they have a tough review board, and if a charter school is not working, it is closed down. That should be the case in many other places. You might ask: Why would you go through that struggle? Well, we should be doing that with some of the non-charter public schools as well, and we are beginning to that with so-called turnaround schools.


Charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools. And charter schools shouldn't be allowed to pick and choose; they should be required to enroll all eligible students. If more students want to come than they have room for, there could be some fair method for choosing the students, such as a lottery. That makes a very good case. If charter schools are so popular that more families want their children to go to them, then we need even more charter schools.


I am happy to come to the floor today to praise the teachers and the innovators, Presidents of both parties, including President Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who have strongly supported charter schools, just as President Bush and President Clinton and the first President Bush did.


This is a movement that has broad bipartisan support. It has grown from a handful of schools in Minnesota 20 years ago to 5 percent of all of our public schools in the country today. What we have found is that when you give teachers more freedom to use good judgment and when you give parents more choices of schools, good things happen.


The charter school movement is proving that. This is a week to salute their hard work and to hope that over the next year, 5 years, 10 years, more and more public schools become charter schools, where teachers are free to exercise their judgment and parents are free to choose the schools their children attend.