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Q&A with Mashea Ashton, CEO of the Newark Charter School Fund

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Charter school advocates are promoting their cause through National Charter School Week over the coming days.
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I recently spoke with Mashea Ashton, a longtime charter school advocate who has worked to create and support charter schools since their inception. Starting as the national director of recruitment and selection for the Knowledge is Power Program, Ashton next moved to the New York City Department of Education where she oversaw the charter school program, helping to open nearly 50 charter schools as part of the city's effort to create 200 small schools.

Ashton also served as the executive director of the New York program and senior advisor for charter school policy at New Leaders for New Schools, and most recently, she is the chief executive officer of the Newark Charter School Fund.

She and I spoke about charter schools in New Jersey, what challenges charter schools face, and how to strengthen the relationship between charter and regular public schools. Questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Please explain the role of the Newark Charter School Fund in helping to improve charter schools in New Jersey.

Ashton: The Newark Charter School Fund was started in April of 2008 with the primary goal of supporting the quality growth and sustainability of Newark's charter schools. We primarily educate key stakeholders including parents and policymakers around what charter schools are and the role that they have in the overall effort to create quality school options. We advocate for high-impact policy changes, making sure that the environment both at the Newark and the state level really supports the growth of quality charter schools. And the third [aspect of what we do is] we are a private foundation, so we provide grants to improve individual schools' effectiveness in a startup phase or even for schools that have been up and running for a number of years. We build the capacity to move from good to great by strengthening their leadership or teacher pipelines or board member capacity. And the last thing that we're really taking an active role in the past two and a half years is supporting a positive collaboration between district schools and charter schools which we have launched as part of our Newark Charter Compact.

How, if at all, has your experience working with charter schools in New Jersey differed from your experiences working with charter schools in New York? What did you learn from your experiences in New York that have helped inform your work in New Jersey?

Ashton: Particularly in my role in New York, one thing that is absolutely critical is the authorizing. The role that the charter authorizer plays in both approving, supporting, and holding schools accountable is absolutely critical in New York. There were multiple authorizers which I actually think really pushed the standard around quality. Fortunately when I was in New York, there was a lot of synergy around the authorizers. We collaborated and spoke with all of them, which creates a healthy, competitive environment. In New Jersey, there's one authorizer, and we've been fortunate because in the over five years that I've been in Newark, we've had a pretty favorable authorizer, and an office that really did focus on quality and making sure that throughout the various stages, there is a relentless focus on quality.

[A similarity between New York and New Jersey] is the leadership. The schools as well as elected leadership has been aligned in both New Jersey and New York. You have a governor, mayor, commissioner that supports quality growth and taken action in different ways, passing policies and incentives so that charter schools were welcome. ... It sends the public message that charter schools are going to be part of the reform movement, and it raises the standards in terms of quality. That clear alignment around quality really forces the traditional public schools as well as the charter schools to be accountable.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing charter schools today? What would you like to see happen to address some of those challenges?

Ashton: One is a need for an education campaign on charter school 101. A lot of parents, a lot of key stakeholders don't understand that charters are free, public schools. There are misconceptions about charter schools about whether there's an election process, who they serve, and that's something we're really working on—eliminating the us vs. them mentality. When you talk to parents, they don't care what the name of the school is. They just want a great school for their kids.

The second issue is that we've been pretty fortunate for charter schools in Newark and New Jersey that there's been a relentless focus on quality and making sure that the ... authorizers provide that autonomy to provide the accountability. We don't want to be the system that we're trying to be better than in some ways.

And then the last challenge is that almost 20 years into chartering, equal access to funding and facilities is still a major barrier for quality charter school growth. We've got to continue to fight even in this kind of economic environment for equal funding and equal access to facility funding. It definitely has an impact on the quality of charters.

What role do you think policymakers can play in helping to ensure high-quality charter schools? What policies do you think best support charters' ability to innovate while still holding charter schools accountable for student achievement?

Ashton: There are policy changes at the federal, state, and local level that can positively provide charter schools equal access, whether it's through funding or facilities. The second is really thinking through how we provide greater incentives. Our Newark Charter Compact is creating the right incentives for our charter school community to commit to our four principles—data transparency and accountability, sharing best practices, innovating to serve the neediest students, and eliminating the us vs. them [mentality].

And there has been a commitment to closing low-performing schools on the charter and district side. How as a charter sector do we really have the right resources to serve the neediest students? That is the last critical element of our compact. If you don't commit to those principles, you don't get access to resources. If you do commit to those, there are financial incentives by being part of a network that's committed to those. At the federal, state, and local level, how could they provide policy changes and incentives for all schools to be committed to those four principles?

Do you think regular public schools have been able to learn from charter schools and implement strategies to better serve students? If yes, please give examples of how this has happened, and if not, how might charter and regular schools strengthen their relationship?

Ashton: This is a huge priority going forward. [In Newark,] we're working on creating a centralized enrollment system for both the charter and traditional public school sector. We're learning from our peers in New Orleans and Denver and Philadelphia—the idea being that parents right now have to go door-to-door to see what options exists, but if there was one system where all the information was housed, they could apply, and there would be a random lottery, and parents would have greater access to all of the resources.

The challenge is we need to provide more quality schools. This system is not a cure-all, but we think that it will centralize the process and force charter schools and traditional public schools to be quality and compete.

Charter schools are supposed to innovate and share best practices and that hasn't been done. I think there are best practices that the charter school sector has helped shape and form across the traditional public schools—ideas around governance, autonomy, and accountability—but this is where we've got to build bridges. There are innovations and best practices that are happening in the traditional public schools, and it needs to go both ways.

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