Bread and circuses

At my school…

We couldn’t afford to air condition all of the classrooms in the building. 

We couldn’t afford to turn the boiler on when the weather turned cold.

We couldn’t afford to provide students with school supplies.

We couldn’t afford projectors for the classrooms.

We couldn’t afford textbooks or class sets of novels.

We couldn’t afford copy paper.

We couldn’t afford to supply students with uniforms.

We couldn’t afford to hire a guidance counselor, school psychologist, or nurse.

We couldn’t afford to add locks to the bathroom stalls in the student restrooms.

We couldn’t afford laptops, Chromebooks, or iPads.

We couldn’t afford to have a library.

We couldn’t afford to have a computer lab.

We couldn’t afford a playground or recess equipment.

We couldn’t afford support staff to help with recess, morning, and cafeteria duties.

We couldn’t afford to provide art, music, and P.E. to all students.

But…

We could afford to host expensive fundraisers at upscale locations.

We could afford to pay each upper-level administrator a six-digit salary.

We could afford to pay “placement fees” to employ college graduates that were not teachers, but were seeking alternative forms of licensing.

We could afford online advertising.

We could afford to have an artist design specialized and heavily branded uniforms.

We could afford to decorate the school building with banners and murals of school propaganda.

We could afford to hire a social media coordinator.

We could afford a state-of-the-art teacher’s lounge.

We could afford to decorate upper-level management’s offices.

We could afford to throw an upscale back-to-school party for faculty and their plus-ones at the most expensive bar in the most gentrified part of town.

I remember attending this party and feeling an overwhelming sense of internal conflict. There I was, dressed in cocktail attire, drinking chardonnay, and “networking” (“teambuilding”) with my new colleagues and coworkers (something I don’t find inherently unpleasant), unable to shake the looming, nagging juxtaposition of this luxury experience with the extreme poverty and urban decay that our students lived in. Who gave us the right to be here, on the state’s dime? Wouldn’t it be better to have a potluck in the staff lounge and put the thousand dollars we spent on craft cocktails and bacon-wrapped appetizers back into the school? A quick Amazon search revealed that for a thousand dollars, I could buy 100 packs of 96 Ticonderoga pencils. That’s 9,600 pencils… and you’re telling me we needed kids buy their own school supplies because there wasn’t enough money in the budget? Please.

But when I think about it, none of this surprises me. Charter schools are all about keeping up appearances. We couldn’t afford the essentials, but we could afford to invest in the “Disney-fication” of our school – the smiling billboards featuring black and brown children in pristine uniforms, the artfully curated social media accounts, the shiny brochures, the pleasant phone voices, the chants and cheers used to teach lessons and manage classrooms. It’s all about maintaining the “brand,” the facade. 

Teachers at my school were not allowed to send out any parent communication unless it had gone through a “brand management” process. Flyers, newsletters, reminders, EVERYTHING had to be in the school-sanctioned format, and approved by the brand manager. Logo on top, correct font, correct type size, plain white copy paper… no cute, quirky, first grade comic-sans flyers from this school, we’re a charter school! We take education seriously! If we don’t “sweat the small stuff,” it was reasoned, how will the children know we’re serious about their education?

All of this spectacle, of course, is a distraction from the embezzlement, the misappropriation of funds, and the lack of care or focus on the students that gives charter schools their success. It is a distraction from the fact that, above all things, charter schools are businesses. This is all a ploy to keep teachers, parents, and students “happy,” so that they pay no attention to the businessman behind the curtain calling the shots. This is nothing but bread and circuses, keeping the public content so that no one questions the bottom line.

And none of this lasts.

There is only so much deficit we can stand before we say enough is enough. There are only so many layers I can wear when my classroom is 40 degrees. A classroom can only get so hot before the kids start passing out and parents start complaining. Teachers can only take so much abuse and gaslighting.

Upper-level management once sent out an employee satisfaction survey, and encouraged teachers to answer honestly. We walked in to the survey follow-up meeting a few days later feeling empowered, and were blindsided by upper-level management’s lecture – “How could you not feel valued? How could you not feel supported? How could you be so ungrateful? We took the entire staff to a swanky bar! We have a state-of-the-art teachers’ lounge!”

Yes, but I can’t make copies.

If you really valued me, you’d give me the resources I need to do my job well. If you really valued your students, and making positive social change through education, you would stop at nothing to give them a state-of-the-art, wholistic education.

If you really cared, we would have air conditioning and heat in all of our classrooms. If you really cared, you would provide free uniforms and free laundry service to all students who need it. If you really cared, you would provide school supplies for all students, and stock our classrooms with books and paper and pencils. If you really cared about a “21st century education,” you would put projectors, interactive whiteboards, and computers or tablets in every classroom. If you really cared, we would have a team of guidance counselors, school psychologists, and nurses, and you would provide free, in-house mental health services to students, parents, and staff. If you really cared about giving students a quality education, you would provide art, music, P.E., library, and media education to all students. If you really cared, I would not have to spend a single cent of my own money on my classroom.

But you don’t care.

Because the cost of caring is too great. Because caring hurts your bottom line.

Because you, dear charter school, are a business before anything else. I see what you’re doing, and you can keep your pretty drinks and cocktail attire. I’ll take jeans, a potluck, and a fully-resourced classroom any day.

One thought on “Bread and circuses

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