Take It From a Charter School Teacher: No One Is In Charge
by Gavin Buckley
The timer on the board buzzes loudly. Pencils fall softly on desks, whispered conversations hush, a few stray eyes return from the window.
Usually, I have to remind students to focus before our group discussion on the daily writing prompt but not today. Today there is a tense anticipatory quiet because all eyes are on the question written on the board…
“What is the difference between public and charter schools?”
After a few seconds, B. breaks the silence “The dress code wasn’t as strict at public school.” Other students murmur agreement. J. continues “They never took my phone at public school.” The whole room sounds off for that one. Then for 5 minutes the floor opens up and students produce a laundry list of grievances (“this school is broke,” “we have 0 extracurriculars,” “we got more security guards than teachers”). The complaints turn into questions (“how come I can’t take art?”, “where are the report cards from last semester?”, “why don’t the white kids have charter schools?”). Then eventually the questions coalesce into one giant head-scratcher no one can answer.
“Who really controls our school?”
In the past year, the charter high school my students and I attend each day has had no less than 3 superintendents. The first, a leader of several years, was removed by the authorizer for evidently holding zero credentials pertaining to running a school, a point that the Michigan Department of Education had heavily fined the school over for three years running. The second was mysteriously fired overnight after only a few months on the job and the third, a “conservator” appointed by our authorizer to balance the school’s books, is currently in charge of school finances and purportedly does not handle the school’s day-to-day operations. Since the “conservator” disbanded the board prior to taking over and has no responsibility for anything outside of financial concerns, the answer to my students question right now is no one.
Technically, no one is in charge.
After a week-long research project about educational leadership, my students found that their learning experience is no one’s responsibility. Between education management companies that every charter must contract with, charter-authorizing colleges and universities that often evade accountability, and shockingly lax laws regarding charter school transparency, my students’ families and thousands like them in Michigan have no democratic say in their children’s education. While problems persist and fester, responsibility is bounced from one office to another until, it turns out, responding to my students’ needs and ensuring their school runs properly is no one’s job. Despite prevailing narratives, they have no “choice.”
Some of my students have pledged to ask big questions of their school leaders and demand answers until someone can step up and take responsibility for, what B. called in her class journal, “stealing our learning.” Meanwhile, it is our job as Democratic Socialists to demonstrate unwavering support for public education, agitate for charter accountability laws, and to champion a vision to revive the public schools in black and brown majority working-class communities across Michigan.