Speeches & Floor Statements

Senator Lamar Alexander Floor Speech — National Charter Schools Week

Posted on May 2, 2017

Mr. President, I am here today to celebrate the 18th Annual National Charter Schools Week and thank the students, parents, and teachers from charter schools across the United States for their ongoing contributions to education.

Senator Bennet of Colorado and I introduced a resolution marking this event, which the Senate approved yesterday.

Let me tell you my favorite story about charter schools. It was 24 years ago, 1992. I was in my last month as U.S. Secretary of Education, and as my last official act, I wrote a letter to every school superintendent in the country asking them to consider replicating the early success of the State of Minnesota in creating charter schools. There were about a dozen of them then, and they were created by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. That was consistent with what President George H.W. Bush and I had been encouraging, which was what we called start-from-scratch schools— schools that gave teachers more freedom and parents more choices. We thought that could improve education in the country and might lead to what we call new American schools.

The first charter schools were created in the State of Minnesota nearly a quarter of a century ago, led by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and there were about a dozen of them. Since then, there has been broad bipartisan, mainstream support for charter schools.

Let’s remember that charter schools are public schools. They are simply public schools which are freer from government rules, federal rules, state rules, and union rules and which give teachers more freedom to teach the children who are presented to them and parents more freedom to choose those public schools.

Some of those who supported the creation of charter schools include Albert Shanker, the late head of the American Federation of Teachers. In 1997, President Clinton said: “We need 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002.” George W. Bush, in the No Child Left Behind legislation, supported charter schools.

President Obama was a strong supporter of charter schools while he was in office. His first U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called himself a ‘‘strong supporter’’ of charter schools. President Obama’s second U.S. Education Secretary, John King, founded a charter school and ran a system of charter schools.

Secretary Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, has spent most of her life as a strong supporter of charter schools.

In 1994, 1998, 2001, and 2015, the U.S. Congress supported charter schools by large margins and in a bipartisan manner. Over 44 states and the District of Columbia have created an environment through their laws for charter schools.

In 30 years, public charter schools have grown from a dozen in Minnesota to more than 6,900 today. Today, charter schools are serving over 3.1 million students. Over 6 percent of all public school students in America today now attend charter schools, and another 1 million students are on waiting lists for charter schools. This past year saw an estimated enrollment increase of over 200,000 students, representing a 7 percent growth in just one school year.

Over half of the students served by these institutions are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches, over half are students of color, and 17 percent are limited English proficient—all higher percentages than those served in traditional public schools.

As I said earlier, charter schools are about freedom for teachers, choices for parents, and more and better opportunities for students. Charter schools enable people. They enable parents to help their children get a real opportunity by choosing better schools or at least schools that fit them better and help them succeed. They enable students to learn and succeed. They enable teachers to succeed by giving them the freedom to use their firsthand knowledge. They enable administrators to succeed by ending bureaucratic mandates and giving them a chance to use their own good judgment.

In amending the No Child Left Behind Act, which we called the Every Student Succeeds Act, we made a number of changes to strengthen and expand the Federal Charter Schools Program, which since 1994 has given grants to states to start new charter schools. ESSA, as we call it, made 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, ESSA invests 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 methods. ESSA continues federal support for nonprofit organizations which help charter schools find suitable facilities, while also encouraging states to assist charter schools in this task.

Now these hard-working and creative educators who are seeking to open charter schools have greater flexibility in how they use federal startup funds—for example, by allowing them to use the funds for transportation or facilities improvement, if that is what they decide is the best use of those funds for their children and their community.

Finally, the Every Student Succeeds Act encourages 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. Charter schools are public schools stripped of many federal, state, and union rules and constraints that are placed on traditional public schools. The money the state would ordinarily spend on the district school follows each child to the charter school instead.

Across Tennessee, more than 30,000 students now have that same opportunity to attend one of 107 charter schools, and they are thriving as a result. A recent study by Stanford University found that on average, Tennessee students attending charter schools gained the equivalent of 86 additional days of instruction in reading and 72 additional days of instruction in math each year than did students attending traditional district schools. In other words, they make almost a year and a half’s worth of progress in a single school year. More than 80 percent of students attending charter schools in Tennessee are low income, and more than 94 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.

That is a worthy event to celebrate in this 18th annual National Charter Schools Week, to celebrate how charter schools have grown from a dozen start-from-scratch schools in the State of Minnesota 25 years ago to more than 6,900 today.