Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Celebrating the Promise of Charter Schools

For the week of May 1-6, 2006

Posted on May 1, 2006

I’m very pleased that, by Senate resolution, Americans will recognize the week of May 1 through May 6 as “National Charter Schools Week.” 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. That year, the nation's first charter school had opened its doors in St. Paul, Minnesota. I saw 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. This was around the time when General Motors' newest automobile plant was a start-from-scratch facility making Saturn cars. Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, said then, “If we can have a Saturn plant, why not a Saturn school?” A lot of educators agreed. Today, there are over 3,600 charter schools serving more than one million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Over half of these schools report having waiting lists, and there are enough students on these waiting lists to fill another 1,100 average-sized charter 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. Charter schools are raising student achievement. Research shows that charter school students are more likely to be proficient in reading and math than students in neighboring traditional schools, and that the greatest achievement gains can be seen among African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students. Research also shows that the longer charter schools have been in operation, the more they outdistance traditional schools in student performance. Charter schools are 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. So far, 25 of 117 public schools have reopened in New Orleans. Seventy percent of these schools are charter schools managed by the Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish School Board, or the State Board of Education. New Orleans officials are working diligently to open more schools to serve students as they return to the city. They have been assisted by a $21 million Federal Charter Schools Program grant, which helped reopen charter schools damaged by the hurricanes, create new charter schools, and expand existing charter schools to accommodate displaced students. Charter schools in other parts of the country also leapt into action to serve students impacted by Katrina. The high-performing Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), in partnership with the Houston Independent School District and Teach For America, exhibited extraordinary leadership by quickly opening a new charter school in Houston, New Orleans West College Prep, to serve over 300 students in grades K-8 displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It is worth noting that not all charter schools are high-quality, and not all are outperforming traditional public schools. But charter schools whose students don't perform academically will close—as they should. It is also worth noting the impact charter schools are having on their neighboring traditional public schools. Districts with a large number of charter schools have reported that they are increasing interaction with parents and creating new education programs, many of which are similar to those offered by charter schools. These improvements benefit all our students, not just those who choose charter schools. I expect that we will see charter schools continue to expand across the nation as word of their success spreads. Four years ago, President Bush 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. I am pleased that 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 commend the charter school students, parents, teachers, community leaders and others who, working together, are helping transform our system of public education. Across Tennessee and across the country, innovative charter schools are making a difference in students' lives and in their communities.