Georgia became the national battleground over charter public schools alternative authorization last month when the state Supreme Court ruled the three-year-old charter schools commission is unconstitutional. So it was not surprising that there very pointed references to that decision Tuesday when the 2011 National Charters School Conference opened in Atlanta.
“Fifteen thousand students have been left in limbo by a dreadful decision from the Georgia Supreme Court,” said National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff. “How we answer will define us for generations.” Groff invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he called for a “next generation of high quality charter schools fueled by technology.”
Moments earlier, and not entirely in jest, Georgia Charter Schools Association President Tony Roberts welcomed some 4,000 conference goers to “Georgia where anyone can grow up to be a state Supreme Court justice even if you cannot read the state Constitution.”
Charter school educators have come from across the nation to discuss alternative authorization, digital learning applications, crisis message management, how to start and fund schools, learning accountability and literally dozens of other educationally relevant topics.
During a 45-minute address former President Bill Clinton told charter educators to “put our country back in the future business” after accepting the NAPCS inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. Clinton described the current “food fight” in most contemporary political dialogue. Click here for additional coverage of the former President's conference address.
Tuesday’s opening session included two of the charter schools world genuine superstars, New York City educator Eva Moskowitz and Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker.
“I understood a long time ago that schools and politics are inextricably linked,” said Moskowitz who opened the first Harlem Success Academy five years ago in New York City. “Our schools are knocking the ball out of the park which now means we are considered a threat, not only to public schools, but to the political establishment.”
The Harlem Success Academy story was chronicled in two charter school movement films, “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman.” Moskowitz encountered stiff opposition from the New York City teachers union and also some community groups. Two years ago the New York Times cited Harlem Success Academy as #1 in math statewide among all 3,500 public schools. Six more Success Academies have followed in just five years, with plans to open 40 more.
“We are tasked with building a better mousetrap, introducing innovation to a sector that has long resisted it,” Moskowitz said. “I believe we are on the cusp of a golden era in education. I raise the question, what is possible for our children? I don’t know but it is our job to find out. We must innovate every day. We must resist the temptation to do things the same way they have always been done and we must question our own perception of what is possible.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker is well known for creating a partnership with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who contributed $100 million to improve Newark student success and champion great teachers. Booker is energy unleashed; his magnetism compels attention.
“We are in the most important fight for justice in generations,” Booker said. “Audacity, audacity, always audacity. We have underestimated the profound genius, the ability of our children. We have become comfortable with failure and it is time for a wake-up call. We are here to disturb the comfortable. We were not born for mediocrity. We were born to stand out.”
Booker issued fair warning to underperforming schools: “We cannot accept mediocrity or failure in the charter movement. I don’t care how a school came into existence. I distinguish between schools of excellence, and I distinguish between schools that suck. If that school happens to be a charter school then that school should either improve or move out of the way and let somebody else do the job.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman will speak Wednesday. Duncan’s address will be by satellite from Washington. The conference ends Thursday with a rally at the State Capitol, across from the Supreme Court.
Click here to learn more about the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference.