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Targeting Teachers: FAQ on the Film ‘Won’t Back Down’

Why is there controversy about the movie Won’t Back Down?

Critics believe the film promotes the privatization of public education and inflames a political climate in which teachers are unjustly disparaged and blamed for the effects of poverty and educational inequity.


What is the movie about?

The movie tells the story of a group of parents and teachers who use a Parent Empowerment Law, better known as the Parent Trigger, to take over a school that is failing their children. Parent Trigger legislation, promoted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), has been passed in several states, including California, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and is being considered in New York and elsewhere. But while the movie depicts an inspiring story of parental revolt, actual efforts to use the Parent Trigger have been driven by billionaire-funded supporters of privatization, and have sparked acrimony and division. None of these efforts has actually improved a school (see tinyurl.com/Trigger-Facts).


Who is behind the movie?

Hollywood star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a plucky parent activist in the film 'Won't Back Down'.
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The movie, due to open September 28, 2012, is produced by Walden Media, owned by Philip Anschutz, and by 20th Century Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch. Anschutz is an oil and gas billionaire who co-produced the anti-teacher film, Waiting for ‘Superman.’ He is a financial backer of Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes union rights and has strongly supported the political career of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Anschutz also contributes to organizations that oppose gay rights and support teaching creationism in schools. While 20th Century Fox is mainly a money-making corporation, Murdoch’s right-wing politics are well known.


Is the film effective?

Won’t Back Down
taps into the deep desire of many parents for change in their children’s schools, and viewers say it is very moving. “The actors did a superb job of drawing you into the movie. I cried several times, despite knowing that this movie was funded by charter school privatizers seeking fistfuls of dwindling education dollars,” wrote Rita Solnet, a Florida parent activist and a founding member of Parents Across America, in a report on the Washington Post’s education blog.

To create sympathy for its story line, the film relies on a false picture of teachers and their unions. For example, the movie says that “union rules” ban teachers from working past 3:00 pm to help students. That’s both untrue and deeply insulting to those who work in the public schools. “There is not a single contract or local union that would ever prevent a teacher from remaining after school to help a student or complete the other work necessary to be an effective teacher,” notes American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.


The Parent Trigger law promoted by the film – what does it call for?

If 51% of parents at a school can be persuaded to sign a petition calling for any of a narrow set of options – either firing all the teaching staff, closing the school, or privatizing the school by turning it over to a charter operator – this must occur. None of these options has any track record of success.


How did the Parent Trigger law originate?

The Parent Trigger was first conceived by a Los Angeles-based organization called the Parent Revolution, founded by a charter school operator and funded by the Broad, Walton Family, and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. The legislation was introduced in California by then-State Senator Gloria Romero, who now heads the California branch of the pro-privatization organization, Democrats for Education Reform.


Have Parent Trigger laws worked?

The first time the Parent Trigger was tried, Parent Revolution sent operatives into Compton, California, to ask parents to sign a petition saying that their local elementary school should be turned into a charter school. Some parents who signed the petition later said they had been misled. The effort was mired in lawsuits and ultimately fizzled (see tinyurl.com/Compton-trigger). More recently, operatives trained and paid by the Parent Revolution urged parents at the Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California, to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller classes and other positive reforms, the other demanding that the school be turned over to a charter operator. After the organizers submitted only the charter petition to the authorities, nearly 100 parents asked to withdraw their signatures. Yet a judge ruled that parents could not rescind their signatures and that the conversion to a charter school should go forward. Even Gloria Romero, the author of the Parent Trigger law, has criticized the organization’s tactics and said that presenting Adelanto parents with two different petitions to sign was “needlessly confusing.”


What’s wrong with the Parent Trigger?

The idea of “choice” has been manipulated by the corporate reformers and spread by groups like ALEC, which seek to use methods such as the Parent Trigger to turn public schools over to privately managed charters. The Heartland Institute, a strong supporter of Parent Trigger laws, calls them “the most powerful education reform policy since Milton Friedman advocated the school voucher.” This is not real choice; nor is it parent empowerment. Most parents want to see their neighborhood public schools strengthened with small classes and less emphasis on standardized testing, rather than given over to private corporation where parents have even less of a voice. Even Ben Austin, head of the Parent Revolution, has admitted that most parents are not interested in turning their school into a charter, but would rather focus on improving their existing public schools.


But how else can schools provide better choices for parents?

There are many ways that districts can provide more and better choices within the public school system: by creating magnet schools and specialized schools that, unlike charters, do not drain resources from public schools, privatize public buildings or take decisions out of voters’ hands. Why should a public school built with taxpayer funds be given to a private corporation just because 51% of current users signed a petition? If a local firehouse was ineffective in putting out fires, or a police station in fighting crime, would we choose to hand these public services over to a private company, or would we demand that our elected leaders improve them?


What about parent empowerment?

Charter schools are run by private corporations that are often more interested in generating profits than in empowering parents. Moreover, most charters do not get better academic results, and many impose harsh disciplinary procedures and push out students who need extra help. (See, for example, tinyurl.com/credo-study.)

Last spring, Florida parent groups banded together to fight Parent Trigger legislation that had been introduced in their state legislature. By holding rallies and press conferences, calling their elected representatives, and speaking out about how the Parent Trigger is a ruse devised by corporate reformers to benefit charter operators rather than children, Florida parents prevented the legislation from being passed.


Where do unions fit into the alternative?

The continuing disinvestment in public schools, particularly those located in the poorest communities with the highest-need students, has led to repeated budget cuts and growing class sizes. Class sizes in some Detroit and other inner city schools have grown to 40-60 students. Across the nation, there appears to be a purposeful undermining of conditions in our public schools in the effort to persuade parents to choose charters and other privately run alternatives.

Education unions cannot allow themselves to be divorced from parent and student concerns, but must ally themselves with other stakeholders in the struggle for increased public investment, educational quality and equity. If not, the enemies of public education will define unions as the problem and present themselves as the solution. Together, they must focus on a positive agenda for change. If unions only respond to false attacks, they may have the better arguments, but they will still lose.

Teacher’s unions increasingly understand this, and across the country they are working more closely with parent groups than ever before. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), for example, has made the need for smaller classes a key part of its campaign for real reform in the public schools. The CTU has pointed out that just half of the amount that Chicago public schools currently spend on charters would be enough to lower class size substantially throughout the district.

The CTU is hampered by the fact that when mayoral control was instituted, the union was formally prohibited from grieving or negotiating on class size, leading to a situation where many classes have 40 students or more. Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the DC public school district, and others in the corporate reform world have argued that teachers should only be allowed to negotiate on wages and benefits, rather than working conditions such as class size, thus ensuring that unions could be further criticized as solely being motivated by self-interest. But the CTU has made clear it will continue to fight for better schools (see tinyurl.com/CTU-Schools-Deserve).

Working together, unions and parent groups can stop the privatization and destruction of our public schools and move toward a better future where all students can get the education they deserve.

Leonie Haimson is executive director of Class Size Matters (classsizematters.org), a non-profit organization that advocates for class size reduction in New York City’s public schools and the nation as a whole. A previous version of this article was published by the Huffington Post.

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