Posted on May 4, 2007
This week I was pleased to join Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and other colleagues in introducing a resolution “Supporting the goals and ideals of National Charter Schools Week” which the Senate passed on May 1st. It’s important to praise the good in charter schools. They play a unique role in public education by offering students a variety of options to meet their different learning needs and styles. Though they vary in specific mission and focus, they are all committed to excellence and to preparing students to succeed. If they’re not, they don’t last long. 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’ve rarely seen a school get better from a distance, and these charter schools are 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 too. There are over 4,000 charter schools serving more than 1.15 million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Twelve 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. 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. 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 have also been a key element of the education revival taking place in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to a school system already plagued by low achievement. The city has a truly historic opportunity to transform its education system into a network of high-performing charter schools that could serve as a model for urban education in the rest of the Nation, and I’m hopeful their success will be just that. I expect that we will see charter schools continue to expand across the nation as word of their success spreads, and hope 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.