So said President Barack Obama this week (Mar. 10) to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington where he outlined his education vision and agenda for America. It was impressive not just because he's a great orator (we knew that already), but because of the content of the speech.
This speech had just about everything, including lofty rhetoric without getting windy, and a comprehensive coverage of specific education issues without sounding like he was reading someone elses' laundry list.
The President specifically embraced charter schools as a strategy to promote "excellence and innovation." He also urged states to remove or lift caps on the number of charters which, of course, includes New York with its cap of 200 (50 remain available for new charters). More incisively, he noted that caps exist to limit charter schools "no matter how well they are preparing our students...[t]hat isn't good for our children, our economy, or our country."
It couldn't read or sound any better.
Two years ago, the New York state legislature finally lifted the charter cap after a two- to three-year struggle by charter advocates. Then-Gov. Spitzer used his political capital to propose a cap lift and got it done. Another cap-lift fight looms in the near future and President Obama has now made the case as well as anyone. True, New York has more and more legislators embracing charter schools, including the new Senate Majority leader, Malcolm Smith - himself a charter school founder before his election to the Senate in 2000; and veteran Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who already introduced legislation (A.5524) to remove the cap altogether.
Unfortunately, despite this growing support for charter schools, especially among a new generation of elected Democratic leaders from the President on down, the teacher unions are in no such mood. The cap exists in the first place at the behest of the New York State United Teachers, and NYSUT fought vigorously in 2006 and 2007 to keep it from doubling.
Which brings us to other areas in the speech. It's striking how many issues the President embraced that mirror the very characteristics of charter schools, including longer school days and years; using data systems to track student academic progress, and having the ability to reward exceptional teachers with merit pay while being able to "move bad teachers out of the classroom." He went on, "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."
President Obama did not have to take on the powerful teacher unions. He did anyway. That demonstrates his focus is where it belongs: on the children, not the adults in or outside the system. This political courage from a chief executive, be it the president or a governor, is the key factor in birthing a reform movement and sustaining it over time. This is because large unions have a tighter grip on state legislators who typically find it more difficult to buck them.
Rock the Cradle, Rule the World
Finally, my favorite part of this speech was not about charter schools, accountability, or the distinctly patriotic flair in his opening. Rather, it's when President Obama discussed his late mother.
The President recalled his time as a boy growing up in Indonesia, where his mother supplemented his schooling with lessons from a correspondence course, since he was unable to attend other schools for lack of money (more on that irony, later) where other American children attended. His mother would daily wake him at 4:30 a.m. to go over lessons before school. He would understandably complain and his mother would respond: "This is no picnic for me either, buster."
It began there for him. "Because she did this day after day, week after week...that I can stand here today as President of the United States."
Well said, Mr. President. Your mother deserved that.
for The Chalkboard
Disclaimer: The Chalkboard is hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association (NYCSA) as a place where members, public education advocates and others can view and respond to informed commentary on timely public education and charter school issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the NYCSA, its board, or of any of its individual charter school members. Anyone who claims otherwise is violating the spirit and purpose of this blog. To comment on anything you read here, or to offer tips, advice, comments, or complaints. please contact TheChalkboard.