U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Rand Paul’s fact-finding mission to Nashville to learn about the progress of Tennessee charters focused on the pros of the school movement and left out some of the cons.
The two senators are sponsors of a Republican-led education bill that tackles everything from fixing the No Child Left Behind Act and embracing various levels of education reform to allowing Title I funding for low-income children to follow students to their choice school.
“I’ve got some specific ideas about what we can do in federal legislation to encourage charter schools,” Alexander told The City Paper Monday following a one-hour roundtable discussion led by him and Paul with Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and KIPP Nashville Executive Director Randy Dowell as well as some KIPP Nashville charter school teachers, parents and former students.
“But it just reminded me, these emotional stories of success and kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to succeed, I still wonder why we, over time, don’t make every public school a charter school,” he said. “I don’t know why teachers wouldn’t want to teach in a school where they had more freedom, and I don’t know why parents wouldn’t want to choose a school that was better for their child. You couldn’t do it all overnight, but you could do it over 20, 25 years.”
Tennessee was home to less than two dozen charter schools in 2009, but will see the number of schools exceed 100 by 2015, said Huffman. Paul, whose state is considering charter schools, said he wanted to take ideas from the meeting back to Kentucky.
“I think above and beyond the statistics, choice is good because I think … you should be able to take your money anywhere, We may not all agree on this, but basically it’s your money. It’s not the government’s money,” Paul told reporters.
The hour-long charter school discussion, hosted at KIPP Nashville’s campus, did not include officials from Metro Nashville Public Schools — the district KIPP belongs to, which has, at times, pushed back against charter schools.
Together, the group spoke about the advantages of charter schools, including a school-level autonomy, accountability, governance and examples of increased student performance. Todd Dickson, who is launching Valor Collegiate charter school next year in Nashville, pointed out the need for an easier pathway for charters to secure facilities.
House Speaker Beth Harwell, the only representative there from the state legislature, who is also a fan of the charter school movement, said the state wants the federal government to free up money so it can flow down to charter schools with “no strings attached.”