Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools

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Remarks by Secretary Arne Duncan to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools

July 1, 2010

I'm sorry I couldn't be with you there live today in person, but I'll keep my remarks very brief and open it up to any questions you might have.

First of all, it has been a remarkable year for charter schools. We've seen a number of states remove barriers to innovation. I've visited a number of charter schools in a dozen or more states, been to dozens of charter schools around the country, and I've just been amazed by the quality, the commitment, the difference that charter schools are making in students lives. I've been to school after school where achievement gaps have basically been eliminated, where children in inner-city communities are performing as well, if not better, than their counterparts in much wealthier suburbs. And for all the challenges we face in this country educationally, the reason why I'm actually so optimistic is because you guys are helping to demonstrate what's possible, where there are high expectations, where there is an absolute belief that every child can be successful. And I want to thank you for that remarkable commitment.

I can go through a litany of the schools I've visited. I will tell you, maybe the most meaningful, emotional one for me was the YES College Prep graduation in Houston. To see a couple different schools' basketball stadiums filled with young people—every single senior graduating, every single senior going on to college—to see them stand up with such pride and hold up the shirts of their universities or their banners, to see the impact that was having on them and their families, but most importantly, the culture that it was building for the sixth and seventh graders who were sitting there and soaking that environment in, you can't not want to be a part of that going forward. And so I just want to thank all of you for the hard work and the movement, the progress we've seen around the country.

Having said that, I want to challenge this group. There are a couple of things that I think we have to do much better, frankly, as a movement. We know where the opposition comes from; we know what the challenges are. I think this charter community maybe hasn't been as active at taking out some of those challenges and addressing them. I have a couple thoughts—a four-point plan—just to put on the table for you guys to think about, that I think in the upcoming year will be critical to the long-term health and vitality of the charter movement.

We know where the complaints come from; we know what the issues are. One is a complaint around a lack of serving diverse populations—the creaming issues we're aware of. As a coalition, as a group, we need across the country for—pick a number: 5, 10, 15, 20, some set of charters each year—to be open and address these specifically. We hear concerns about not enough English Language Learners being served. Obviously I saw an extraordinary example there in Houston with YES College Prep. But if there are places—New York or other cities—that don't have enough charters serving ELL students, you guys need to collectively think through who are the players who are doing a fantastic job, who are going to step into the void, and systemically, across the country each year, start to address that issue. Secondly, you hear the complaint about charters not serving enough special education students. Who are the set of charters—again, 5, 10, 15, 20, whatever the number is—across the country each year that are going to step up, that are disproportionately going to serve students with special needs? Third, you have the issue of creaming. We can get into whether that's true or not, but we have a small set of charters that I think are doing an extraordinary job of serving only students who have kicked out of traditional public schools—the opposite of skimming or creaming. We have a few of those; I don't think we have enough. Who amongst all the players in the room there today are going to step up and help those students who, by definition, are not being creamed, but whose needs were not being met in traditional settings? I think, if you can come up together with a game plan to start to hit those three populations—ELLs, students with special needs, students who have been kicked out of or expelled from traditional schools—and say you're committed to serving those and serving more of them each year, and create schools where that's their mission and that's their focus, I think that would absolutely move this conversation to a different level.

Secondly, I'm learning a lot here in Washington. I've been here 18 months, but I will tell you quite frankly—and I don't think I'm telling you anything you don't know—but far too many of the representatives of the children you serve see you as part of the problem, not as part of the solution. I think building stronger relationships with CBC, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, building better relationships with the leaders of the civil rights organizations...there's not a widespread understanding or acknowledgment of the difference that charters can and are making in the lives of the most underserved children around the country. Building those relationships at the state, and at the national, level, are hugely, hugely important in getting folks to come out and visit schools and dispel myths. I can't overstate how important that relationships building will be for you.

Third, I thought Caroline Hoxby's study, the randomized control study looking at the students in New York who were entered in the lottery—some got in, some didn't—was an absolute breakthrough. As you know Apples to Apples directly addresses the creaming issues, the skimming—that only more motivated parents are sending their children to charters, and that's why charters get better results. What I would urge you, for all of you that have long waiting lists—and again, it demonstrates the great work you're doing—but where you have long waiting lists, where you have lotteries where some students are getting in and some aren't, I would actively encourage you to get your local researchers to do longitudinal studies of students who get into your schools who apply and students who don't. There's obviously an apples to apples comparison that will shine a spotlight on the real impact that great charter schools are having. I think having many more of those studies, looking at a whole host of issues going forward around the country, will absolutely change the debate.

The final thing I'll say—I'm going to be a little bit tough on this, because I challenged you at your convention—I challenge the charter community to be more vocal and to step out on charter schools that weren't succeeding, bad charter schools. Quite frankly, I've felt a lack of courage around that this past year, and I think the damage that that's doing to all of you in the charter brand around the country is unfortunately huge. As we look to shut down and turn around the 5,000 lowest performing schools around the country, about 200 of those happen to be charter schools, and that to me is absolutely unacceptable. All of you are in the room because you're a part of the charter school movement, you're part of the charter school franchise. Bad charter schools taint all of your reputations and allow your opponents, your opposition, to use those examples. There has not been, that I'm aware—maybe I'm missing something—courageous leadership from the charter school movement itself to step up and say here are criteria below which these schools should cease to exist. If you were much more proactive in that area, not that you have the ability to close them down, but you should not be tolerating in your family academic failure.

I think you need to do the same around authorizers, where you have states or districts that are much too lenient in who they approve and much too lenient in who they allow to continue to operate. I think you need to have a list of good authorizers and bad authorizers and very clear criteria about what it takes. At the end of the day, the movement can't be to create more charter schools; the movement has got to be to create more great schools. Unfortunately, we have far too many mediocre charters, and we have far too many charter schools that are absolutely low performing. Your best are world-class—again, your best give me extraordinary reason for hope for public education in this country—but this movement has to do a much better job of policing itself, and again, the political costs that the charter school movement is paying for poor performance may be much higher than you realize. The silence, the lack of courage, the lack of leadership, on both individual schools and on authorizers that are allowing these things to continue, I think does this movement a great disservice. I would strongly, strongly urge this organization to step into that void with courage and leadership and let the country know what you stand for...

Again, for those schools that are doing an amazing job of closing achievement gaps and bringing hope to communities that haven't had quality educational opportunities, sometimes for decades, I thank you so much for that hard work and commitment.