Top US ed official: ‘Teachers saved my life’

This column originally was published by ECM Publication

Top US ed official: ‘Teachers saved my life’

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

On June 28, U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. gave one of the most powerful compliments to teachers that I’ve ever heard.

He noted that his parents, both public school educators, died from illnesses by the time he was 12. He moved from relative to relative, and as he explained: “I struggled a lot. And I was kicked out of a high school.” However, ultimately, “public school teachers saved my life.” He went on to earn degrees at Harvard, Columbia and Yale.

King spoke at an annual national conference sponsored by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. King described charters as “an important and permanent part of public education.” But his praise for the impact educators can have went well beyond chartered schools.

King acknowledged that sometimes students misbehave or, as he put it, engage in “challenging behaviors.” Despite this, King urged educators to “do everything you can to get to know students well.” That’s what educators did for him as he struggled.

U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education)

U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education)

He tried to apply those experiences as a public school teacher in Massachusetts, where he helped start a charter school.

King pointed out that more than 3 million students were suspended in 2013-14. He believes that’s too many. He urged educators to learn from the most effective public schools – district and charter – that use strategies like restorative justice to provide consequences for students without sending them out of the school building.

King also noted charter school enrollment is increasing throughout the country. Both in Minnesota and nationally, enrollment in charters has grown over the last seven years, while enrollment in traditional district schools declined. Stefan Huh, director of charter school programs at the U.S. Department of Education, and I talked at the conference. He shared the following statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics:

–Total public school enrollment was 49,065,594 in 2006-07 and 49,709,977 in 2013-14 – an increase of 644,383.

–Of that total, in the same years, charter enrollment went from 1,157,359 to 2,519,065 – an increase of 1,361,706.

–Traditional district enrollment (in district schools) decreased from 47,908,325 to 47,190,912 – a decrease of 717,413.

(These numbers came from two tables: and

In Minnesota, district enrollment declined from 804,557 in 2006-07 to 780,915 in 2012-13. Meanwhile, charter enrollment increased from 23,689 to 41,604.

Some Minnesota educators have learned that they can carry out their ideas about how to help students by starting charters. And as the statistics cited above show, growing numbers of families are selecting charters. Charters in Minnesota enroll a higher percentage of low-income and students of color than district public schools.

But charters are not just located in cities like Duluth, Minneapolis, Rochester and St. Paul. Charters are located throughout the state, in suburban communities like Anoka, Blaine, Bloomington, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Coon Rapids, Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Ramsey, Richfield and Stillwater. They’re also found in a number of greater Minnesota communities like Elk River, Forest Lake, Isanti, Cologne, Monticello and Otsego. A complete list of Minnesota charters is at

King urged educators, whether in district or charter schools, to remember the huge positive impact they can have. Reflecting on his own experience, he believes that the best educators recognize “the vast potential of children.”


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at

2 Responses to Joe Nathan column: Top US ed official: ‘Teachers saved my life’

  1. It’s not “compliments” that teachers need from Secretary King, it’s policies and plans that help kids learn. He has continued the same, faulty nonsense initiated by former Secretary Duncan, replete with worthless testing and competitive grants for “races” that led to nowhere.

    It’s important that we remember where these policies come from. They are policies put in place by President Obama, who has continued the same nonsense that former President Bush started.

    Teachers can indeed “help save lives.” They can also help kids learn. Sec. King needs to focus on programs that truly help, not hinder learning. Maybe he can elp the President understand, too.

  2. Jim Kielsmeier says:

    Joe Nathan continues to teach – by example. All should heed what he has learned through a profound near death experience. I’m really glad he still has this podium.