Written by Mashea Ashton
It’s fair to say the ultimate goal of the education reform movement, and the education community in general, is to ensure that all students – no matter where they live or what their background is – have access to a high-quality education. This is a big and intimidating challenge, an addressing it requires across-the-board commitment to three foundational goals.
First, we have to ensure that low-income families have access to high-quality educational opportunities at local private schools. Too often, those at the lower end of the income spectrum are limited to sub-par or failing public schools simply by virtue of what neighborhood they live in. This is an unacceptable outcome for those of us committed to educational equality, and that’s why we should focus time and resources on ensuring that workable solutions like vouchers and tax credits are an option for our nation’s most disadvantaged students.
Second, we have to be committed to providing access to high-quality public charter schools. As public schools operated independently of their district, charter schools are in a unique position to lead in educational innovation, setting an example for both private and traditional district schools.
But too often they lack the funding and access to facilities that other public schools enjoy. All students deserve equal access to educational funding, facilities, and opportunities in areas where charter schools are available, and we have to work even harder to make sure charter schools are available as an option in those places that don’t currently provide educational opportunity.
Third, we have to work to improve the quality of the traditional public schools we already have. There’s a temptation for education reformers to focus on progress we can make outside district school systems. In many ways it’s easier to enact change through private and public charter schools than it is in district schools. But committing to high-quality education for all students means making sure that every school is providing the best possible education to its students.
It’s easy to embrace an “us versus them” mentality, especially between reformers and the establishment, but even among reformers. Each sector of the reform movement has its own priorities, and when we focus only on our goals we risk losing sight of our purpose. Ultimately, we’ll only realize our shared vision if we learn to work together, both as reformers with different priorities and in collaboration with the establishment.
That’s what we’re trying to do in Newark, New Jersey, where parents, educators, administrators, students, clergy, community leaders and other local stakeholders are coming together for educational opportunity. Despite significant budgetary and community challenges, we have been able to establish significant changes in the educational landscape. Nearly one-third of Newark’s public school students are now served in charter schools, and the entire community is talking about ways to continue expanding access to high-quality options.
I’ve said before, and it bears repeating, that we have to take a kids-first approach to the issue. If charter, private, and district schools can all acknowledge that we have the same universal goal, if we can acknowledge together that our children are more important than politics, ego, or legacy, we can increase access to high-quality options across the board.
Mashea Ashton serves on the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and is the CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund.