“Good morning and thank you Russ for that kind introduction.
“Thank you, I'm honored to be here at Brookings, and want to thank the Brown Center and everyone here for their work to strengthen and improve our education system.
“Let me begin with a simple principle: we cannot be a great country without great schools.
“As this year's Education Choice and Competition Index notes, America is in the midst of an education revolution, with a shift towards more choice for families. Having spent time in communities across the country where school choice is firmly taking root – and delivering real results – I have seen first-hand how this revolution is improving the lives of children and their families.
“We should celebrate the dedication of the parents, teachers, and advocates who have worked tirelessly to improve education. At the same time, I hope you will agree that we must not rest until every school in every community adequately prepares every student for success in college, careers, and life. Even if a small portion of our schools fail, we all fail. Whether we have children in school or not, we will all benefit if our schools improve, and we will all pay the price if we fail the next generation.
“But right now school choice is under attack in the very places that top this year’s rankings. It is up to us in this room, and our allies across the nation, to work for and fight for the families and students who will suffer the consequences if school choice is taken away.
“Many of us in this room have seen with our own eyes why it is so important. Last September I visited the Freire Charter School in Philadelphia, where I met Elijah Jones, an incredible young man born with a speech impediment.
“A few years ago, Elijah’s parents, James and Crystal Jones, felt that he was not getting the personal attention or the effective education he needed at school. I asked Elijah's parents how they came to decide Freire School was the right place for their son. They both agreed that first and foremost Freire offered a safe place to learn. And second, they were drawn to the school's genuine commitment to empower each student with the tools necessary to succeed, even if that meant regularly spending extra time with Elijah due to his special needs.
“Because his parents had the freedom to choose Freire, Elijah is thriving because he has finally been given a chance to pursue his dreams. Elijah reminds us that behind each statistic is a child – a little boy or a girl, a young man or young woman – whose generation will, in the not too distant future, be responsible for the future of America. We have a responsibility to them right now – a responsibility to our children, to our communities, and to our nation’s future – to ensure they graduate prepared for life. And prepared to lead.
“All parents and families should have a safe place for their children to learn. But the harsh reality is that every day millions of kids across the country are denied the chance that the Jones family has with Elijah. That is unacceptable.
“Politics and policy are part of every day in Washington, but safe, effective schools for all children is not a political issue. It is not a partisan issue. It matters to every single one of us. And it especially matters to those living in poverty, desperate for a life line.
“For many families, living in poverty spans generations. Parents and grandparents struggled to realize the American dream. School choice is the surest way to break this vicious cycle of poverty and we must act fast before it is too late for too many.
“The fact is the government's approach to fixing our schools has been too slow, too sporadic, and too ineffective. And while we wait, we are losing generations of kids.
“For far too long the federal government’s approach to fixing our education system has been based on two principles: spend more money and give more control to Washington. Since the mid 1960’s the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to improve schools in low-income areas with little to no effect.
“Americans have a right to ask: why do our student test rates lag behind most of the industrialized world?
“Why, in our largest cities, do only half of public high school students graduate on time?
“When the fact is, our biggest cities offer advantages that should make it easier, not harder to have innovative and effective schools. Surrounded by universities, cultural institutions, and a diversity of industries, children in urban areas should be succeeding.
“So why are they, so often, in so many cases put in dangerous school environments where they don’t learn math, science, language, and the arts, and they don’t graduate?
“The simple act of graduating high school not only dramatically increases the chances someone has a job, but it dramatically decreases the chances someone turns to crime. In America’s largest cities, unemployment and crime are staggering problems. Introducing choice into these areas especially, helps the kids and just as importantly, helps the community. The dropout rate in urban areas must be brought down to the national average and school choice will help achieve that goal.
“Working together we should make it easier for teachers to teach, not harder. We should make it easier for students to learn. We must embrace teachers, schools, and communities who are succeeding, remove roadblocks, and expand school choice. This is how we'll begin to close the opportunity gap and produce real results for all America's students, especially those who need our help the most.
“On a recent trip to Louisiana, I visited a Catholic school in downtown New Orleans where I met a young student named Brian. Brian’s mom is no longer around and he has only met his father through prison bars. His grandmother is raising him, but she was just diagnosed with cancer. Brian doesn’t have very much.
“But when it comes to his school, Brian has more than many, many students in America. He is in a great school surrounded by caring teachers, who go above and beyond and are truly committed to his progress. Brian is thriving there. He told me he has big plans for the future. At 11 years old, he is aiming high, and now has his heart set on going to college.
“Brian has the opportunity to attend this school because of the Louisiana Scholarship Program – a program championed by Governor Bobby Jindal that provides kids who live below the poverty line with resources to attend a school of their family’s choice.
“When speaking to the Brown Center last year, Governor Jindal stated, 'To oppose school choice is to oppose equal opportunity for poor and disadvantaged kids in America.' I couldn’t agree more. But don’t take our word for it. Look at the results. These scholarships have brought hope and opportunity to thousands of students just like Brian across that entire state. What Governor Jindal has done in Louisiana is a model that governors across the country can and should adopt.
“Unfortunately, this program is now under threat. Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department took Louisiana to court, claiming that its Education Opportunity program impedes progress made through desegregation. In other words, the Attorney General is accusing the state of using this program to discriminate against minorities. This kind of attack on an effective program that helps everyone – providing opportunity scholarships to kids of every background – is political payback to those who oppose school choice. They see school choice as a threat.
“And they are right. School choice is a threat to the status quo. School choice protects families and children, not bureaucracies. It’s about making sure that every student, like Elijah and Brian, who have high aspirations and big dreams beyond the challenges in their lives can have the best possible teachers in the best possible school environment. Surely, that is a goal we can all agree on.
“After repeated calls to do so, the Attorney General withdrew his initial request to permanently shut down the program. However, he is still demanding that the federal government have a veto right over each child’s scholarship award and that parents cannot be notified about their child’s scholarship until it receives federal approval.
“Governor Jindal has correctly identified this as an attempt to ‘red tape and regulate the program to death.’ I challenge Eric Holder to visit Louisiana and meet with the students and parents who participate in its Education Scholarship Program. I challenge General Holder to look these families in the eye – to go and talk with Brian and his grandma to listen to how the scholarship has improved their lives and hope for the future. And to explain how his actions will help them and others like them.
“Unfortunately, the attacks on school choice and its successful programs are not limited to Louisiana.
“Over the last decade in New York City, the Bloomberg Administration made it easier for charter schools to co-locate with other traditional public schools in the same building. It may not sound like a revolutionary change but it meant real, meaningful improvements for families in the city. As a result, real estate costs were defrayed and the number of charter schools grew from 17 to 183 in the last 12 years. But now it is being reported that the city’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio, is considering a moratorium on charter school co-locations – and may even go so far as charging them additional rent.
“This move could devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market like New York City. Just think of how many families will have their choices taken away if Mayor De Blasio pursues these policies. Mayor De Blasio should abandon this plan and allow New York’s charter schools to continue to flourish.
“Our committees in the House will remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure no one from the government stands in the schoolhouse door between any child and a good education.
“And right here in our nation’s capital, there is an ongoing assault on school choice. Since it was created in 2004 with bipartisan support, the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program has received more than 11,000 applications with over 1,600 students receiving aid to attend a school of their choice in the past year alone. A recent study showed that charter school students in Washington, DC gained the equivalent of an extra 72 days in reading and 101 days in math instruction over the course of a year compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. What an incredible achievement.
“Yet, despite the program’s success and popularity, President Obama has refused to include funding for it in his annual budget request. Why?
“The President should fully fund the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program in his upcoming budget. The program works, plain and simple. No matter what party, we should all leave no doubt that the DC Opportunity Scholarship will receive the funding and support it deserves.
“The House is leading. In July of last year, we passed the Student Success Act. This bill was built around the idea that we should learn from one another’s successes, and build on improvements that are delivering real results for children and the schools they attend. The act will help expand education opportunity by providing incentives for states to replicate high quality charter schools. The bill provides for improved tutoring and public school choice opportunities, and it requires that school systems provide parents access to information about the performance of their local schools. Parents can then actually hold schools accountable for the quality of education their children receive.
“The Student Success Act also includes an amendment I authored, that for the first time provides states with the option of allowing federal funds they receive for low-income students to follow those students to the public school of their choice, including charter schools. This ensures that the priority is what’s best for the family and the child.
“With the passage of this bill, the House took an important step toward advancing education opportunity for all young Americans. I urge the Senate to begin considering the House-passed bill today.
“Today, more than two million students across America are taking advantage of public charter schools. Over the past five years, student enrollment in public charter schools has grown by 80%. And another 225,000 families use tax-credit scholarships or vouchers to attend private schools. School choice programs are experiencing this kind of expansion for one very simple reason: they work. They deliver real and measurable results.
“It is my personal goal that in 10 years, every child in America will have education opportunity through school choice no matter where they live.
“Progress isn’t easy – but nothing truly important is ever easy. Improving our schools won’t happen overnight – but we have a responsibility to work for it every day.
“Thanks to the efforts of this institution, its supporters, and most importantly, millions of dedicated parents out there, we are well on our way.