I’m Maggie Gylenhaall, And So Are You

“I’m not Maggie Gylenhaall, but I play her in real life.” That’s a message being promoted by organizations, many like our grassroots movement, furious with the release this Friday of the Hollywood film, “Won’t Back Down.” The movie stars Gylenhaall as a mother struggling to change the school her daughter attends, working with a sympathetic teacher played by Viola Davis. The fictional pair illustrates the frustration many parents and teachers feel about the very real problems facing public schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods around the country.

But the movie puts the wrong target in its crosshairs. Our public schools are staggering under years of chronic under-funding and inequitable distribution of resources. We need look no further than the sorry state of school libraries, as our incredible viral action this past week so clearly demonstrated. (See “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books.”) These problems have been compounded over the past decade by a national obsession with high-stakes testing that has done real damage to education. Yet the film blames teachers and school administrators. And it promotes a “solution” supported by the ultra-right filmmakers – parent trigger laws designed to close public schools – that have nothing to do with real parents and teachers working together to fix real problems. (If you haven’t yet, please read “We Won’t Back Down, Either” for background on the parent-trigger law, who made this movie and why.)

The fact is, I am Maggie Gyllenhaal – and so are you. All of us parents, teachers, and concerned community members working together every day to support our public schools and make real change. Pulling the trigger on a school such as Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 would never solve the problems facing urban public education. But every single day, volunteers like Mr. Wallace Sapp are working in that school and teachers like Sheila May-Stein are finding ways to partner with parents to find real solutions to issues such as empty bookshelves. The Stack the Shelves campaign is an example of real, meaningful parent and community engagement – the kind that helps us all understand and address the underlying issues of equity and funding that we need to focus on.

Sheila May-Stein (right, buried in donated library books yesterday) is a real life teacher making a real-life difference for ALL our students by partnering with parents and the community.

Ms. Jackson and Mr. Wallace Sapp – a community volunteer who is at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 nearly every day – with this morning’s load of donated books! This is what teachers and the community caring about a school REALLY looks like.

OK. So I’m not really Maggie Gyllenhaal. (Too bad, actually, since she is terribly cute.) But we all play her in real life. And when real parents and real teachers work together, we are incredibly powerful. So here’s a fantastic opportunity for us to tell the world about how Pittsburgh parents, teachers, and community members are coming together to support public education:

This Friday, the PIIN (the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network) education task force is holding a press conference at 3:30PM in front of Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill. (Note: this is a second venue change, and PIIN tells us the final location.) It is scheduled right after school so that parents can zip over with their children and will only last 30 minutes. If you are in the area, please plan to come and tell the media why “I’m not Maggie Gylenhaall, but I play her in real life.”

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books

How did this happen? That’s what everyone wants to know. How does a public school library wind up with only 40 usable books of fiction on its shelves in a school that serves kids from pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade? It turns out the answer has everything to do with state budgets, national priorities, and a long history of under- and unequal-funding of schools in our poorest neighborhoods.

Let’s start with the good news. Our call to action to Stack-the-Shelves at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 went completely viral this week. Literally thousands of people around the country and across the globe saw our original post and blog piece (see “Library Books and Equity”) and within hours thousands more had shared the story with their networks on Facebook and twitter. We got re-tweeted by actress Allison Pill from the HBO series The Newsroom, children’s author Laurie Halse Anderson (who wrote Speak), and mega-award winning author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, and many others). A new meme created by Kathy Newman captures this moment exactly:

By week’s end, hundreds and hundreds of donated books started pouring into the school, including over 650 new books purchased from an Amazon Wish List, and the Post-Gazette featured our grassroots movement on the front page. [Post-Gazette, 9-22-12] Sheila May-Stein, the intrepid librarian hired temporarily by the District to get Manchester’s library back on its feet, reports that, “Manchester Craftsman Guild is getting involved with the school, PPG offered a 3-year grant, Toonseum is donating cartooning classes, a local storyteller is going to tell stories and teach sign language, Pitt’s School of Library and Information Science students are going to help catalog, [and] Jonathan Mayo is going to help to fix up the physical space.”

Manchester is a distressed community, but it cares about the school and this grassroots action is helping to support even further engagement. Two women from the neighborhood were the very first people through the door with a giant box of donated books. Others from the Northside area are stepping up to volunteer in multiple ways, such as offering to read to the kids and helping students make posters based on the books they’ve read to decorate their new library.

The first people in the door to donate books were these wonderful women from the community.

This is an amazing success story for our grassroots movement and demonstrates the immense power we have when we act together. At the same time, it illustrates the much bigger issue of equity in public education and the choices that are being made at the local, state, and federal level. So here’s the short answer to that pressing question “How did this happen?”

For many years, Pittsburgh Public Schools gave principals flexibility in how they spent some of their funds in what is called their site-based budget. Flexibility can be a good thing and in theory allows schools to respond to local needs. However, when the entire school budget is not sufficient to cover all high-priority needs, principals have been forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul,” essentially stealing from library budgets to pay for things like teachers.

This occurred for years at places such as Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8 with the tacit approval of the District. This doesn’t mean that other schools in the city were rolling in dough while the predominantly African-American Manchester didn’t have books, but the fact remains that other schools were making different choices while keeping their libraries. Some had parents raising money for some of the “extras” such as field trips to help free up the site-based budget for other needs. And it appears there was plain old inequity in the way resources were distributed among the District’s schools.

Part of the problem has been that the District did not put school libraries on a hard funding line, so they were fungible, and their budgets could be raided for other highly critical needs. This kind of structural issue creates a false dichotomy: we can either have a teacher or a librarian. Yet kids need both. All our students deserve a full time librarian, as well as art, music, language, and gym. These are not fat to be cut in lean times and we need to ensure that funding is available for all of these things.

The District’s new Equity program commits to having a library in every school this year, which is a good start. But one of the ways they have achieved that is by taking away flexibility with site-based budgets. When schools are not sufficiently funded, this actually creates new problems – and they can be very real problems with racial equity.

A quick example to illustrate: the city school where my sons attend lost its Title 1 funding a couple years ago because as the school population grew with more local, white families sending their children back into the public system the proportion of low-income (and mostly African-American) students dropped. Their absolute numbers actually stayed the same, but their overall percentage in the student population dropped just below the cut-off line for this federal program, which had been providing crucial funding for tutoring programs and teachers. When the District cut the school’s Parent Engagement Specialist this year – a key position for engaging those low-income families in their students’ education – the loss of flexibility with the site-based budget meant the principal was not permitted to shift funds to cover this critical need.

Of course, a much better equity action plan would be to adequately resource all schools, to make sure they have excellent leadership, and then to empower them with sufficient local control to meet local needs. When schools are not adequately funded, they are forced to make impossible choices. And Pennsylvania has been chronically under-funding public education for years (we rank 44/50 on how much we spend at the state level, forcing local towns to pick up the tab, contributing mightily to the inequity problem). We also have a broken funding formula that does not fairly distribute the state dollars we do spend.

This has affected kids all over Pennsylvania. One teacher from a North Philadelphia school wrote that, “not only have we had no library for at least 5 years, but it is now a shell. No books, no shelves, no computers, and no librarian.” She asked, “How can we develop a love and passion for reading when there are no books at school?” and added, “Our kids cannot even go to the public library in the neighborhood, because it is too dangerous.” Carol H. Rasco, CEO of Reading is Fundamental, the nation’s largest literacy program, explained that, “Currently there are 16 million children in our nation living in poverty, the highest number in two decades, and in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one book for every 300 children.” [Washington Post, 4-22-12]

That’s the equivalent of Manchester preK-8 having one book in the whole school. Our grassroots viral effort will make sure that Pittsburgh’s children have thousands of books to read. In this way (and in many, many others) Pittsburgh is very fortunate. But now we need to also make sure that there is a long-term plan for our school libraries.

Book collections don’t maintain themselves and a librarian one day per week in a school is simply not enough. They can barely check books in and out in that time, let alone collaborate with teachers to build on lessons being learned in the classroom, help students find appropriate reading material, teach information gathering skills, run reading clubs and other special programs, host book fairs, and get to know students and their individual needs. What’s more, under the new Equity plan, some schools are actually losing access to their librarians who used to be available three to five days per week, and now are being shared between schools. We are lucky to still have a librarian at my sons’ school, but she now has two classes she must teach on top of her regular librarian duties. This should not be.

I am hoping the District will address the staffing issue, but it will require a tough, honest conversation in our entire community. For instance, do we need to close still more schools, perhaps some of the smallest, so that we effectively have fewer total libraries and can fully staff them? I don’t know the answer to that question, but we need to talk about it. We will also need to know how the District will ensure that these thousands of donated books get properly catalogued and, once we fill the shelves at Manchester, how they will be distributed to the schools that need them. Finally, what will the District do with the funds they would have spent on books this year now that volunteers have stepped up to fill the library shelves?

In some ways, our well-meaning action has created a wrinkle for Pittsburgh Public Schools. Our donations do not fit into a well-planned scheme for developing school collections; there will be gaps and duplication; we’ve created an immediate need for resources to deal with the piles of boxes arriving at the school. But the outpouring of support for our schools is incredibly precious. This is a golden opportunity for the District to build on the goodwill of the community and to reinforce meaningful parent engagement with public education. And this grassroots movement will continue to ask tough questions about state budget priorities, too, which have perpetuated this inequality.

The first boxes of new books arrive in the office at Pittsburgh Manchester.

Library Books and Equity

Here’s a story to warm your hearts and fire up your engines all at the same time. In just 24 hours, Yinzer Nation has gone viral again, this time rising to the cause of a pitiful situation in a local public school library.

On Tuesday afternoon, Sheila May-Stein posted the following photo to my wall on Facebook, explaining that this is the entire fiction section in the library at Pittsburgh Manchester preK-8. There are only 40 usable books. She wrote that she was “Feeling overwhelmed and despondent when I see pictures of ipad labs and brand new books and all the other privileges white suburban kids have when I compare it to what the kids at this school have. They are learning every day that they aren’t worth clean, fresh paint and unstained carpets and books that aren’t 65 years old.”

Manchester, a public school in the city’s long-struggling Northside neighborhood, has not had a librarian or a library in years. The students are over 90% African-American. These facts alone raises serious issues about equity within the Pittsburgh Public School district, since schools in other parts of the city have maintained lovely libraries. Last year, 49 of the city’s 59 schools had libraries, begging the question, what happened to the missing ten? However, the District has recently committed itself to having library services at all schools starting this academic year. [PPS “Equity: Getting to All” report, p. 20] As a result, they have hired Sheila on a temporary basis to work at Manchester getting the library re-opened.

A picture can be worth a thousand words, and her photograph of those destitute shelves has sparked a firestorm. On Tuesday evening, I posted the photo to Yinzercation’s Facebook page and wrote:

We can change this situation right now, this week. We are starting a book donation drive — perhaps make Manchester your new library-sister-school? The kids need FICTION only, appropriate for kids in 2nd-8th grade in GREAT condition. All donations can be dropped off on Sheila’s porch in Squirrel Hill (contact us for address if you’re local) or, boxed up, and sent to Manchester Elementary, labeled for the Library. You can also check out the Amazon Wish List for Manchester if you prefer to send them something new.

I told my boys about this situation in the car on the way home today and they were completely baffled that other Pittsburgh schools did not have Colfax’s wonderful library full of books. They immediately came home and started collecting books. My oldest said, “I can find 20 right here — and that’s already half of what the school has.” His brother added, “I bet I can find 10 friends to donate books, too, and then we’ll have at least 200!” I think he’s right. We took literally five minutes to gather up a beautiful huge pile and I will take them over to Sheila tomorrow.

Within 24 hours, over 600 people had seen that original post and over 118 people had shared it on their own walls and with their networks. We started hearing from people all across the United States and even abroad who want to help. Boxes started appearing on Sheila’s porch and by last night over 80 brand new books had been ordered from the Amazon Wish List. That number is bound to explode today as word continues to spread on social media:

  • Neil Gaiman, the mega-award winning English author of The Sandman, Coraline, and many other books and graphic novels, tweeted about this with a link to our original post;
  • kids at another Pittsburgh public school donated gift certificates they had received for their own book fair;
  • a teacher is taking up a collection in his room;
  • businesses are sending around the notice on their internal mailing lists;
  • a major local non-profit is interested in getting involved;
  • Samaire Provost, a U.S. author, is sending two full sets of her Paranormal series geared for kids;
  • A woman from Manchester in the U.K. wrote, “How’s your ancient literature (still fiction!) section? Every library should have one. … I’ll see what I can send over the pond.”

Sheila reports that, “When I told the Principal she just about cried. Wait ‘til the kids see! Wait ‘til the loving, overworked teachers see! Wait ‘til the overworked, exhausted, dedicated parents see these books coming home in their children’s hands! You are showing Manchester’s children that THEY MATTER.”

Here again are those addresses so you, too, can be a part of this success story.

  • Pittsburgh Manchester PreK-8 (label packages for the Library)
    1612 Manhattan Street
    Pittsburgh, PA 15233
  • Sheila’s Amazon Wish List for Manchester
  • Sheila’s front porch (if you’re local; contact us if you need the address)

Sheila has promised to share photos with us as the shelves begin to fill. And if they overflow, all that goodwill be donated to other Pittsburgh Public School libraries that are being reconstituted this year. This is what we can do, working together. As I said in my original post, “Don’t wait. Here’s one small thing we can fix right now. And then we will keep fighting to make sure we are dealing head-on with the underlying equity issue that permits this to happen in our schools.”

Advertising Public Education

Does your local public school have money to make slick commercials ready for prime time? Can it put up billboards along all our major highways and on the sides of buses advertising for students? Does its name pop up at the top of your Google searches? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Yet charter schools are allowed to take our public taxpayer dollars and use them to advertise. Around here, PA Cyber Charter is one of the biggest spenders on this kind of publicity (they are also the largest cyber charter in the state, which speaks to their recruiting prowess).

But one local teacher decided he would like to share the good things going on in his public school system: have you seen this commercial that just started airing last week? [Click here or on photo below to go to page with the video.]

Sto-Rox High School chemistry teacher Josh Lucas raised $2,600 from the community, including parents and teachers, to produce the commercial, which is now showing on KDKA-TV and WPCW. The Post-Gazette reports that the Sto-Rox district “has struggled academically and financially for years and faces a significant threat from the Propel charter school organization, which has a pending charter application to open a K-12 school in McKees Rocks that would eventually serve 800 students.” [Post-Gazette, 9-11-12]

With only 1,400 students in the district currently, that strikes me as a charter school literally threatening to take over an entire public system of education in one of our communities. Last year, the Sto-Rox board rejected Propel’s charter proposal, but Propel appealed and now the two groups must negotiate an agreement by this Thursday. Does anyone really think the district can survive with just a few hundred students left?

Look at what is happening to the Duquesne school district, which is on the verge of total collapse thanks to years of under-funding from the state, compounded by other problems. The state sent all of its 7th through 12th graders to neighboring school districts (then paid them less per student than it actually costs to educate them, fanning the flames of resentment in those communities and resulting in nasty counter-charges of racism). Now the state is literally taking away local control from the residents of Duquesne: State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis made a preliminary declaration placing the district in financial recovery. The district has until today to request a hearing, but if it doesn’t, the declaration becomes final and the state will name a Chief Recovery Officer (CRO). [Post-Gazette, 9-15-12]

Remember how Sec. Tomalis put the fox in charge of the henhouse when he named Joe Watkins to oversee Chester Uplands school district? (See “Taking the Public out of Public Education.”) That could easily happen here. And even without one of Governor Corbett’s top cronies in the position of CRO, the state will have the power to convert what remains of the district to a charter school or to bring in an educational management company. Either way, that’s more public money going to private corporations. Not to mention the loss of another public school system.

What are communities without strong public schools? It doesn’t have to be this way. This is really about priorities. We have a voice and we can make a difference. Some of us can even make great commercials and raise enough community support to put them on the air.

You’re Invited to a Private Screening

Are you in an ethical quandary about seeing the new “Won’t Back Down” movie? Perhaps you are angry about the film’s parent-trigger agenda and that it’s set in Pittsburgh claiming to be inspired by true events – that never actually happened here – but you still want to see the movie so you can be fully informed without contributing to these ultra-right filmmakers’ box office receipts? [See “We Won’t Back Down, Either” for the gory details about who made this movie and why.] Here’s the solution to your dilemma:

The Pittsburgh Public School district, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and A+ Schools are hosting a private screening of “Won’t Back Down” on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 6:00 PM. The viewing will take place at South Side Works Cinema. Seating is limited and will be reserved on a first come basis with parents and teachers given priority. RSVP HERE

There will be a brief panel discussion after the film moderated by the Rev. John Welch from PIIN (PA Interfaith Impact Network SW), who is also Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Students at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Panelists will include:

  • Nina Esposito-Visgitis, President, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers
  • Carey Harris, Executive Director, A+ Schools
  • Dr. Linda Lane, Superintendent, Pittsburgh Public Schools
  • Randy Testa, Vice President of Education and Professional Development, Walden Media

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why we would give anyone from Walden Media 12 seconds of our time, especially since the entire previous two hours of the movie will be “their” message – complete with tear-jerking sound track and a feel-good story. Heck, who doesn’t want to root for the single mom who sticks up for her kid’s educational needs? Who doesn’t love a good story about a white woman and a black woman coming together and beating the big bad system? We all love a good underdog tale.

But Philip Anschutz and his Walden Media are not interested in what real parent engagement looks like in our public schools. They are selling privatization – turning over our public schools to private corporations in the name of corporate-style “reform.” There’s a reason the parent-trigger law is becoming known as the parent-tricker law: in California where it was first introduced, the law fooled many parents into thinking they were taking (more) control of their local schools. But scores of parents there cried foul after realizing the way outside operatives had been sent into their communities and lied to them. Closing down public schools and handing them over to private charter companies destroys a public good, forever (while enriching those corporations at tax-payer expense).

Walden Media’s Randy Testa, who has taught third grade and has an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has made it clear that these movies are designed as propaganda. In an interview earlier this year, he explained, “We have also recently made Walden’s tacit commitment to education more explicit. We co-produced the recent documentary about education, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” and we have a film coming out this fall, a drama not a documentary, called “Won’t Back Down” about two mothers –one a teacher—who come together to change their local school. … A good story gets people talking –and maybe even doing.” [Ploughshares Literary Magazine, 2-24-12]

Indeed. There’s mighty power in pop-culture, and Walden Media knows it. I hope Linda Lane, Nina Esposito-Visgitis, and Carey Harris come out swinging in defense of public education on October 3rd. We need to make sure people are “talking and maybe even doing” alright, just as Testa says – talking and doing something about this slick effort to sell school privatization, that tells lies about Pittsburgh, and attempts to introduce parent-tricker laws here in Pennsylvania. Let’s all be there on October 3rd to demonstrate what meaningful parent engagement in our schools looks like and that we here in the grassroots intend to keep fighting for public education as a public good.

Poverty and Public Education

If we’re serious about public education, we need to get serious about poverty in this country. Too often those who wish to discuss the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes are accused of using it as an excuse for poor teaching. The new “reform” movement insists that the only thing poor kids need is a “great” teacher – increasingly defined by student test scores – and that any poor student performance must be the result of bad teachers.

Obviously, we should not tolerate incompetent teachers (though this is another reason good principals are so important, as it is their job to recognize sub-par teaching and offer the right kind of help – and to show truly bad teachers the door). And it goes without saying that all children have the potential to learn and do well in school. Naturally, we want all students to have a “great” teacher. However, we need a much better, and respectful, conversation about teacher evaluations that are based on far more than test scores alone. (Just think about the greatest teachers you ever had. Really. Imagine them for just a moment. You most certainly are not remembering the grades you got, but are thinking about teachers who inspired you, challenged you, nurtured your passions, and planted seeds that took years to mature.) High stakes testing has created a perverse system of teacher evaluation that often has little to do with recognizing great teaching.

The larger point is that good teaching matters an awful lot inside the school doors, but what happens to children outside them matters a whole lot more. The education historian Diane Ravitch points out, “Reformers like to say that poverty does not affect students’ academic performance, but that is their wish, not reality.” What’s more, she argues, “the corporate reform movement blames teachers for low test scores, ignoring the underlying social conditions that stack the deck against children who grow up in poverty. There is no question that schools in poor neighborhood must be improved, but school reform will not be enough to end unemployment and poverty.” [The Death and Life of the Great American School System, pp. 256-57]

And the fact is that the poverty rate in the United States is projected to hit levels not seen since the 1960s – before many of today’s parents of school-aged children were even born. Census figures for 2011 will be released later this fall, but economists surveyed this summer broadly agreed that the poverty rate could climb as high as 15.7 percent. The Boston Globe explains, “even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest level since 1965,” and that “[p]overty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor.” [Boston Globe, 7-23-12]

But the number that is our national disgrace – the number that ought to be on all of our lips, the cause for outrage, and at the top of our country’s priority list – is 26. That is the percentage of children aged birth to five living in poverty. [Tracking Poverty and Policy] That’s right, 26%. Over a quarter of American children start life struggling with the ill effects of poverty, including poor nutrition; inadequate pre-natal care; high exposure to health risks such as premature birth, lead poisoning, and asthma inducing smog; and the instability of frequent moves, substandard housing, and food insecurities, to name just a few.

A whopping 23.1% of U.S. children under the age of 18 live in poverty, putting us second in the world. Among developed nations, only Romania has a higher relative child poverty rate (with 25.5% of its children living in poverty). UNICEF reported this past spring that the U.S. ranks above Latvia, Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, and 29 other countries on this absolutely shameful scale. That ought to make us pay all the more attention to the study’s finding that government spending does lift children from poverty. [Huffington Post, 5-30-12]

We also know, as Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California points out, “Middle-class American students who attend well-funded schools rank at the top of the world on international tests.” He argues that, “The problem is poverty … Study after study shows that poverty has a devastating effect on school performance.” [Post-Gazette, 8-12-12] No surprise then that when the Keystone State Education Coalition analyzed Pennsylvania’s list of what it designated “failing schools” last year, it found the poverty rate at those schools was 80.8% (measured by the percentage of students receiving free or reduced price lunch) versus the statewide average of 39.1%. [KSEC, Feb-2011

It’s true that Pennsylvania’s children actually fare slightly better than the nation as a whole, with a statewide child poverty rate around 20 percent, putting us 14th out of the 50 states. But a report out this summer from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also found “nearly a third of children were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment.” [KidsCount report, 7-25-12] Poverty is real, and it affects an astonishing number of Pennsylvania’s children starting in the years before they even reach school.

These numbers underscore just how stunningly short sighted it was when Governor Corbett attempted to slash $100million from early childhood education and Kindergarten earlier this year. If anything, we need to be investing more in pre-natal care and quality early childhood education programs. And we need more wrap-around services like before- and after-school care, tutoring programs, social workers and community healthcare. Those would be the kind of sound public policies based on proven strategies, backed up by real data, that we ought to expect from our legislators.

We Won’t Back Down, Either

Have you heard the buzz around “Won’t Back Down,” a major new Hollywood movie opening here in three weeks? It’s time for that buzz to start sounding like a swarm of angry bees coming from anyone who cares about our public schools. Here’s why.

The film, which was shot here in Pittsburgh and also set in our fair city, claims to be “inspired by real events.” Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter, it tells a stirring tale of parents fighting for their kids against downright cruel teachers and uncaring school administrators while also vilifying teachers’ unions. But there is absolutely no evidence that anything like the events depicted in the movie ever occurred in Pittsburgh. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” is very clearly an attempt to promote school privatization and ALEC-backed parent trigger laws, which have not even been on the radar screen here in Southwest Pennsylvania. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

The movie was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz. Anschutz co-produced that last anti-teacher and anti-public school film, “Waiting for Superman.” He’s an oil billionaire with ultra-right politics, making contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools and oppose gay rights. Parents Across America, a grassroots organization like ours fighting for public education on the national level, notes that, “Anschutz has also donated to Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, which opposes environmental regulations and union rights, and to the political career of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.” [Parents Across America alert, 8-12]

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (whom I had the honor of marching with when she was in town for Monday’s Labor Day Parade), points out that, “Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media … as way for him to promote their values.” In a piece last week in the Washington Post, Weingarten explains those values are “crystal clear”: Anschutz funds ALEC and a host of organizations that “operate against the public interest in favor of corporate interests, and all of them actively oppose collective bargaining rights and other benefits for workers. Anschutz has also invested millions in anti-gay and extreme religious-right organizations such as the Promise Keepers, whose founder declared that ‘homosexuality is an abomination against almighty God,’ and organizations affiliated with Focus on the Family.” [Washington Post, 8-28-12]

These guys didn’t just go into filmmaking for the fun of it. They have a clear agenda. And this time they are pushing parent-trigger laws. These laws allow parents to vote – by a simple 51% majority by signing a petition – to essentially shut down a public school. School districts are then forced to either fire all the teaching staff at that school, close the school altogether, or privatize it and turn it over to a charter school operator. The idea for parent-trigger laws was hatched by a California organization called Parent Revolution, which was founded by – surprise, surprise – a charter school operator.

Parent Revolution got major funding from the Gates and Broad Foundations as well as the Waltons (of Walmart fame and huge supporters of school privatization) to push the law in California. The group sent agents into Compton to get parents to sign a petition to charterize their elementary school, but some of those parents later said they had been purposefully misled. Parent Revolution then sent its operatives into Adelanto, CA and tried to get parents to sign two different petitions: one calling for smaller class sizes and other reforms, and the other calling to hand the school over to a charter operator. But after the group only submitted the charter petition, nearly 100 parents asked to have their names removed and a judge refused, insisting that the conversion to a charter school would proceed. [For more on the film and parent trigger laws, see Save Our Schools, another national grassroots organization like ours.]

These “Parent-Tricker” laws are fundamentally anti-democratic. They permit a small group of parents to essentially hand over a public asset to private owners. Public schools do not exist just for the parents and families who happen to currently be using them. That’s what we mean when we say public education is a public good: public schools serve the broader public interest by educating future citizens. They also exist for tomorrow’s students who have yet to step foot in the door. Parents have every right to fight to make education the best it can be for their children, but they cannot do it by converting public goods into private assets.

Ironically, I have to point out that these anti-public good school privatizers got public tax-payer dollars to make their film. Yes, that’s right: we here in Pennsylvania extend a nice fat tax-credit to film companies to induce them to make their films in places like Pittsburgh. [See Pittsburgh Film Office, tax credit information.] Those are tax dollars we don’t see in state revenue and can’t use to support our public schools. Perhaps we need (some) tax credit programs, but it’s all about priorities: maybe we shouldn’t be giving our money to film makers who turn around and tell blatant lies about Pittsburgh, our schools, and our teachers while undermining public confidence in a crucial public resource.

But that’s just what this film is doing. And the filmmakers have had plenty of help spreading their message. Three weeks ago, CBS aired a concert called Teachers Rock, funded by Walmart, as a promotion for “Won’t Back Down,” with stars including Carrie Underwood, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Garner, Matthew Morrison, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Usher, and Maroon 5’s Adam Levine. [Business Wire, 7-24-12] And as I lamented yesterday in my open letter to President Obama’s senior education policy advisor, the Democrats stepped right in line with Republicans, both showing the film at their national conventions these past two weeks. [See “Dear Mr. Rodriguez…”]

You can be sure we’ll be hearing lots more about parent-trigger laws here in Pennsylvania, too. Proponents have already popped up in Harrisburg: back in June during the budget debates, House Bill 2352 wound up defeated, but it would have created a parent trigger law. [Keystone State Education Coalition, 6-27-12] Remember, this is where grassroots activism will make the difference: this past spring, Florida parent groups fought back against proposed parent trigger legislation and won after an intense battle. [Miami Herald, 3-9-12]

When the film opens across the country on September 28th, we will have an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation and many eyes will be on Pittsburgh. Let’s be ready! We will need to write letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and engage our social networks to expose the real agenda behind “Won’t Back Down.” We’ll need to attend showings and discussions (stay tuned for more on those). We’ll need to let the country know what authentic parent engagement looks like, why we are fighting for public schools as a public good, and that we won’t back down.