Friday, April 24, 2009

We Should Expect Excellence In Schools.

By By Lamar Alexander and Arne Duncan, Special to Viewpoint, The Memphis Commercial Appeal

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We have both served as U.S. Secretary of Education -- under the first President Bush from 1991-1993 and now under President Obama -- and have seen the potential that charter schools can have in getting results for American students.

One of us was there at the beginning, writing to the nation's school superintendents in 1993 to urge them to start charter schools in their districts. Since then, more than 4,100 charter schools have opened across the country.

One is here now, having helped create charter schools in Chicago and hoping to see the number and quality of charter schools grow to serve even more students and communities.

President Barack Obama has encouraged the growth of successful, high-quality public charter schools, and challenged states to reform their charter rules and lift caps that limit growth and success among excellent charters. He said putting arbitrary caps on public charter schools is not "good for our children, our economy, or our country."

That's why we must encourage higher-quality processes for the approval and review of charter schools, as well as plans to shut down schools that are failing to serve students well. All of America's public schools must be held accountable to high standards.

As the debate over public charter schools moves forward across the country and in Tennessee, we must stay focused on the core issue, which is educational quality, not governance. Parents and children do not wake up each day and ask whether they attend a charter school or a non-charter school, so why should we?

Instead, we must eliminate barriers to the creation of innovative and effective schools -- both charter and non-charter -- that can address some of our chronic education challenges in under-served urban, suburban and rural areas. If that means creating more public charter schools, then we have a moral obligation and an economic imperative to do so.

Last year, all eligible charter schools in Tennessee made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by federal law. One of them, Circles of Success Learning Academy, was honored with a Title I Distinguished School Award from the Tennessee Department of Education. The year before, another charter school, the STAR Academy, achieved the same honor.

In Chicago, charter schools are succeeding because of a rigorous application process that rejects more proposals than are approved and tough performance contracts that hold them accountable for results.

Today, 14 years into this experiment, Chicago has 68 charters schools, many of which outperform their neighborhood schools and most of which have waiting lists. It is worth noting that three charters were closed because they failed to meet their student achievement goals.

Under state law, Tennessee can only have 50 charter schools. Limiting the state to 50 charters is arbitrary and counterproductive and denies parents future educational options.

Most people do not know that there are many charter schools with union teachers. In fact, one of the pioneers of the movement was Albert Shanker, the legendary head of the American Federation of Teachers.

The fact is charter schools are public schools, they serve our children, they use our tax dollars and our facilities, and they are required to meet the same statewide academic standards of traditional public schools.

With so many young people dropping out of high school or graduating unprepared for college or work, the stakes are too high to ignore the educational opportunities offered by high-quality, effective public charter schools. In a free and dynamic society like ours, good ideas should be allowed to flourish and bear fruit.

Lamar Alexander is a U.S. senator from Tennessee. Arne Duncan is the U.S. education secretary.

© 2009 Scripps Newspaper Group — Online

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