It’s great to be here with so many pioneers and champions who are fighting to give our nation’s families more quality options in their children’s education. We each have a different story of how we got here. Here’s mine…
Defenders of the status quo like to paint me as a “voucher-only proponent,” but the truth is I’ve long supported public charter schools as a quality option for students. I worked with many others to get Michigan’s first charter legislation passed in 1993 — the third state to do so. And my husband founded a charter high school in Michigan that focuses on aviation, educates kids in the STEM fields, and prepares them to contribute in significant ways to our 21st century economy.
Whatever your own journey looks like, we’re here because we came to the same conclusion that, as a nation, we are simply not doing a good enough job educating our kids.
We all saw too many kids languishing in schools that did not work for them. We knew that if given choices, these students and their families would find an environment that suited them and challenged them.
Let me be clear up front: This is in no way an indictment of the great teachers working every day on behalf of their students. In fact, they should be honored, celebrated, and freed up to do what they do best. If there are any teachers — past or present — here today, will you please stand up? Thank you for all that you do.
Let me tell two stories that illustrate this reality:
Unfortunately for them, right after they closed on their house, the school board redrew the lines, and poof — Dan and his family were now assigned to a different school, this one with achievement levels much lower than the one they moved away from and the one they sacrificed their life savings for. When Dan took his case to the district, the response was, “Too bad.”
The second story: Sandy recently moved to Virginia. She was excited to be living in a highly regarded, high-performing district. Her son completed the local school’s assessments, and while he had just finished first grade, he tested at the fourth-grade level. Yet the school told Sandy they didn’t have anything to offer a gifted student like him and he would have to stay in second grade because of his age.
So while the school district is well regarded for its high performance, it shows that not even a great district is the best fit for every child.
I can’t justify either situation to these parents when they ask the same question each of us would ask: “Why?”
“Why can’t my children go to the school I chose?”
“Why isn’t there a program that meets my child at his level?”
The answer should not be “Take it or, literally, leave it.”
How can we be OK with an education structure that is so inflexible and so unaccommodating? Education is foundational to everything else in life, yet the process of acquiring it is based on a family’s income or neighborhood.
A system that denies parents the freedom to choose the education that best suits their children’s individual and unique needs denies them a basic human right. It is un-American, and it is fundamentally unjust.
Thankfully, you are among those who are working to give parents the freedom to find that education for their children.
It’s been more than a quarter-century since the first charter law was enacted in Minnesota in 1991. That law didn’t evolve out of a vacuum, and it wasn’t developed on a whim. It was passed in response to the stories of families like Dan’s and Sandy’s. Parents were desperate for more options, and they pressed for change.
What began as a handful of schools in Minnesota has blossomed into nearly 7,000 schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 3 million students nationwide.
Through your great work, you have proven that quality and choice can coexist. You’ve helped weave charter schools into the fabric of American education.
Charters are not the one cure-all to the ills that beset education. Let’s be honest: There’s no such thing as a cure-all in education. Even the best school in the country with the best-trained educators and the most resources will not be the perfect fit for every single child.
I suggest we focus less on what word comes before “school” — whether it be traditional, charter, virtual, magnet, home, parochial, private, or any approach yet to be developed — and focus instead on the individuals they are intended to serve. We need to get away from our orientation around buildings or systems or schools and shift our focus to individual students.
Today, the United States is third in per-pupil spending among developed countries, yet our students rank 19th in science, 20th in reading, and 24th in math. The problem is not how much we’re spending; the problem is the results we’re getting.
Charters alone are not sufficient. Private schools alone are not sufficient. Neither are traditional schools.
And that’s OK. Let’s humbly admit this fact and recognize that no top-down, one-size-fits-all approach will ever help us achieve the goal of giving every child an equal opportunity for a world-class education. When a learning environment is not the best fit for a student, it’s incumbent on us to facilitate their transition to one that does meet their needs.
I was in Miami a few months ago and saw firsthand how a community is acting intentionally to meet the diverse needs of its students by providing a wide range of educational options.
I visited three distinctly different schools: SLAM Charter School, Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence, or CARE, and Royal Palm Elementary.
SLAM charter school, founded by Armando Pérez – you may know him as “Pitbull” – serves a low-income community with a large number of English learners. Many of the students anticipate being the first in their families to graduate high school, and some even had to enroll themselves in the school. For these kids, SLAM is providing a state-of-the-art learning environment that embraces the arts and athletics.
CARE serves elementary-age children with a focused outreach to those who are homeless or victims of sexual assault. Located in a homeless shelter in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Miami, CARE gives these kids, who often struggled in a larger school setting, a safe and nurturing environment that addresses their unique needs. The vast majority of students attending CARE do so at no cost to their parents through Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Royal Palm Elementary serves children from its neighborhood and beyond. Led by a dynamic principal and a creative group of teachers who clearly love their work, it was evident why the parents of these students chose this experience for their children.
I celebrate the fact that each of these schools is helping students succeed in unique ways. The parents I met didn’t care that these were different types of schools; they cared that the school was working for their son or daughter. These schools are simply representative of what is possible in an environment of robust choices.
Education is not a zero-sum game. We should not think of it as such. There is no one right way to help kids learn, and just because a school educates children differently than you might propose to does not make them the enemy. Let’s applaud and encourage others who serve students well. It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or.
A zero-sum myth is continually perpetuated by the education establishment. We cannot — we must not — fall prey to that game. Charter schools were created to address the fact that for too many kids, their assigned public school wasn’t working for them. The early charter school leaders weren’t afraid to color outside of the lines, and in fact, they embraced the creativity, innovation, and flexibility charters represented.
But somewhere along the way, in the intervening 26 years and through the process of expansion, we’ve taken the colorful collage of charters and drawn our own set of lines around it to box others out, to mitigate risk, to play it safe. This is not what we set out to do, and, more importantly, it doesn’t help kids.
No one has a monopoly on innovation. No one has a monopoly on creativity. No one has a monopoly on knowing how every child learns.
Charters’ success should be celebrated, but it’s equally important not to “become the man.” I thought it was a tough but fair criticism when a friend recently wrote in an article that many who call themselves “reformers” have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats — a new education establishment.
Innovation, iteration, and improvement must be a constant in our work.
This administration has sent a clear message: We trust parents, and we believe in students. We will fight for every parent and every child, especially those who for too long have been forgotten.
The window of opportunity is narrow and the stakes are too high for us not to act. We must act boldly, and we must act now.
So let’s re-engage and recommit to the entrepreneurial spirit that gave rise to charters 26 years ago. Embracing more change, more choices, and more innovation will improve education opportunities and outcomes for all students.
For me, I picture Angie and Denisha…
Now think about Dan, and Sandy, and all the other families who need those same opportunities.
It’s time to put down the permanent marker and straight edge, and instead pick up your brush and palette and paint. Paint in bright, bold colors and continue to add to the colorful collage that was started 26 years ago.
We cannot let the opportunity go to waste.
Act — act now! For Angie … for Denisha … for Dan … for Sandy … and for every parent and every child across America.
We owe it to them, and we owe it to our nation.