A p.r. campaign disguised as a movie

Leonie Haimson is a parent advocate, executive director of Class Size Matters and founder of the New York City Public School Parent blog. She is also co-editor of NYC Schools Under Bloomberg/Klein: What Parents, Teachers and Policymakers Need to Know.

In September, she attended a screening of the pro-charter school film Won't Back Down and participated in a panel discussion afterward. In this article for the New York Public School Parents blog, she gives her thoughts about the film and the discussion.

Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won't Back DownViola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won't Back Down

LAST NIGHT, I attended a screening of the controversial new film Won't Back Down about a parent and a teacher who take over their "failing" public school. I have written an FAQ about the movie which is posted here. The film was produced by Walden Media, owned by right-wing billionaire Philip Anschutz, who also co-produced Waiting for "Superman".

Advance screenings have been held around the country, organized by Michelle Rhee's Students First and other pro-charter lobbying organizations, to promote "parent trigger" laws, which allow a school to be turned over to a charter operator if 51 percent of the parents sign a petition calling for this. Here is a good analysis by the Center for Media and Democracy.

The movie itself is badly written, poorly acted and full of exaggerated characterizations and unconvincing plot twists. Its message, transmitted with sledgehammer subtlety, is that the only reason that schools in poor communities are failing is because of incompetent, lazy teachers who are protected by the union. The film also implies that in turning around a school, all that needs to happen in addition to getting rid of the union is to change the school "culture," which is done by scheduling more field trips and telling students that they can learn and go to college.

The two main characters, played by Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both have children who are struggling in school--one with dyslexia and the other [spoiler alert!] who toward the end of the film is revealed to have possible brain damage. Somehow getting rid of the union and converting to a charter school will magically help these kids learn--though in reality, many charters discourage parents from enrolling their children if they have disabilities, or are quick to push them out after they enroll.

The main villain in the film is the teacher of Gyllenhaal's daughter. This teacher spends time playing with her cell phone during class, prevents the little girl from going to the bathroom, and then locks her in a closet when she wets herself. The evil parents and teachers who oppose the takeover of the school carry signs saying, "Public school advocate" and "Taking over neighborhood schools destroys neighborhoods."

If I hadn't been on a panel to discuss the movie afterwards, I would probably have walked out.

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THE PANEL also included Christina Grant, former deputy director for the New York City Department of Education's Office of Charter Schools and now head of New York Children's Action Network, a charter lobbying organization, and Kate Hayes, a parent with a kindergarten child who has been shut out from attending her neighborhood public school because of overcrowding. Hayes is also on the founding board of a prospective charter school called Great Oaks, which has applied to the state to open in fall 2013.

I pointed out that though the movie claims repeatedly that the union prohibits public school teachers from staying after 3 p.m. to help struggling students, this is factually untrue. Many teachers do indeed stay late helping students, and according to the recent Gates-funded Scholastic survey, they work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day--a 53-hour workweek. Also, according to international comparisons, our teachers spend more time actually teaching than in any other developed nation.

When Christina said that when she was a charter school teacher at KIPP [Knowledge Is Power Program], she made herself available nights and weekends, I pointed out that most charter schools like KIPP have extremely high levels of teacher and principal attrition; this isn't a sustainable model nor one we should want to replicate if we want experienced teachers and school leaders in our schools.

I also pointed out that every year in New York City, the top priority of parents is reducing class size, and the union is the only thing standing in the way of Bloomberg doubling the class size, as he has said he would like to do.

Michelle Rhee, on the other hand, as well as other members of the corporate reform crowd, would like to eliminate all limits on class size, as well as to bar teachers from being able to negotiate on this issue, and would limit them to arguing over wages and benefits.

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I ALSO provided some historical background. Here in New York state, we already have a form of the parent trigger. With the assent of the district, a school can convert to a charter if 51 percent of the parents at the school vote to do so. Despite the fact that under Bloomberg, the Department of Education (DOE) has been extremely charter-friendly, they have never tried to put conversion to a vote of parents, probably because they know it would be roundly rejected.

The last time such a conversion was attempted was in 2001, when then-Chancellor Harold Levy allowed Chris Whittle, the CEO of the chain of Edison for-profit chain of charters, to try to convince parents at five public schools to let him operate their schools. Despite promises to parents of more funding, computers, etc., this attempt sparked big protests and opposition in communities all over the city, and Edison lost the vote at all five schools.

Now Edison operates only one charter school in New York City, the Harriet Tubman school, which gets very poor results, and Whittle has moved on to greener pastures by starting the much-hyped private school Avenues, charging $40K per year in tuition.

Christina Grant countered that the Parent Trigger legislation they are now lobbying for, which in its current form would just pertain to the city of Buffalo, is better than the existing charter conversion law, because it gives parents more options, such as closing the school, restructuring it, etc.

I don't think most parents want to close their neighborhood school--or to fire 50 percent of the teachers, another negative option that the bill provides. Why a rigid quota that would require that half of all teachers at any school should be fired could be seen as a way to empower parents or to improve a school is beyond me, though it is one that the DOE and the Wall Street hedge-funders seem to favor.

And these sorts of high-stakes decisions should never be made through the mere signing of a petition, without holding a real vote with proper oversight; this is an open invitation to manipulation and abuse. In fact, the two times the Parent Trigger has been tried in California, hundreds of parents asked to have their signatures rescinded. A PTA election would never be allowed to occur in such a slipshod fashion, no less turning a public school over to a private corporation to run.

Now, I have spent over a decade as a parent activist in New York City, and I have yet to see any parents rise up on their own in an effort to privatize or close their neighborhood public schools. I have seen thousands of parents--along with teachers--working together to protest school closings, fight budget cuts and rising class sizes, and/or to obtain the right to opt their children out of high stakes testing, and yet these efforts are usually met with scorn from the same people who are pushing this movie.

Don't be fooled: the movie Won't Back Down is not really about parent empowerment; it is instead a massively financed PR campaign, engineered by billionaires and hedge-funders who couldn't care less about what parents actually want, but want to take down the teachers union and take over our public schools.

First published at the New York Public School Parents blog.