Won’t Be Silent

The new film, “Won’t Back Down,” is a thinly-veiled propaganda piece produced by ultra-right ideologues bent on privatizing one of our most cherished public goods. It’s a blatant attempt to inject “parent trigger laws” into the national conversation on education, laws pretending to give parents and teachers control over struggling schools that in reality strip away local control and hand schools over to private corporations. But you wouldn’t have known any of that from the panel discussion after a private screening of the movie held Wednesday night.

Hosted by A+Schools along with the Pittsburgh Public School district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, the film screening played to a packed theater of parents, teachers, and community members. Perhaps sensing the mood of the audience, we were told not to boo during opening remarks by Randy Testa (Vice President of Education at Walden Media which produced the film) who was inexplicably invited to this event. Despite essentially having a two-hour infomercial to tell his story, complete with Hollywood stars and a tear-jerking soundtrack, Testa was also infuriatingly given the majority of microphone time.

We were also told not to boo during the movie or panel discussion: presumably sniffling during the correct dramatic moments or cheering would have been acceptable. But this audience was not cheering. And at several points when characters spouted particularly egregious misinformation, there was loud groaning and a few shouts of “liars!” when folks could not contain their anger any longer. Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel “discussion” by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.

And so we did not get to talk about who made this movie and why. We did not hear about the private corporate interests behind parent trigger laws or how they have been used to trick parents into signing over their schools, only to have all control taken away from them. While one question did ask about the film in the context of our recent devastating state budget cuts, none of the panelists took the opportunity to connect the consequences of those cuts – and years of inequitable and chronic under-funding of public schools – to the real problems facing our District. And so we did not hear about how struggling schools like the one portrayed in the film actually get to be that way in the first place.

Instead, the audience was left with shallow platitudes – “we can all agree that kids come first.” Yeah, we love kids. I think we can all agree. And “we need to put students before grownups,” which makes my head explode every time I hear it, since it’s actually a pat little phrase used to silence teachers and parents trying to speak up for students. Worse, the audience was told we simply need parents and teachers to “work together” and all our problems will go away. As if we don’t have incredible parents and teachers working together right now, doing amazing things. (I point you to the Manchester Miracle library project, if you need a quick example of what this grassroots movement is doing this very minute: “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books.”)

After the event, organizers even handed out a slick little “pocket guide for doing what’s best for kids in school” produced by Walden Media and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Its 17 pages are full of photos from the movie along with suggestions for how to hold better parent-teacher conferences. Give me a break. Obviously, parent-teacher communication is important – and for some families, that’s a starting point to meaningful engagement with their schools – but that’s not what this is about. Oh wait: there it is on page 16 under “Know Your Rights”: Walden Media and Harvard helpfully remind us that “Parent Trigger laws have been enacted or considered in 20 states and are endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. These laws allow parents to reconfigure or shut down a school in which 51 percent or more of the families agree and are dissatisfied with the school’s performance.”

We have hundreds of new blog subscribers following our Manchester library work that went viral, so let’s quickly recap what this movie and these “parent tricker” laws are really about. The film was produced by Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox (we are well aware of their conservative credentials) 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 huge contributions to groups that teach creationism in our schools, promote hatred and fight against gay rights, oppose environmental regulations, and work to eliminate unions. [Parents Across America alert, 8-12] Anschutz also funds ALEC, which is behind much of the blatantly corporate legislation being introduced in our state legislatures, including trigger laws. [For more on ALEC, see “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC.”]

Parent trigger 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. Walden Media’s snazzy little pocket guide lists Parent Revolution as one of their recommended “Resources” for parents (along with edreform.com, a blatantly radical-corporate-reform site promoting school privatization, vouchers, etc.).

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. 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).

The law is not even about real parent engagement: all parents are doing is signing a petition, and then real control is taken away from them. Yet parents have real control over their schools right now. Most fundamentally, we elect school board members to represent us. We can also speak up at school board meetings. We can work with our school districts. We can work with our principals and teachers.

We need to be having a real conversation about who is behind parent trigger laws and other privatization schemes. We need to be talking about Pennsylvania’s massive budget cuts and legislation that Gov. Corbett is trying to ram through at this very moment to benefit his wealthy charter-school-owning friends that will drain more resources from our public schools and eliminate local control by democratically elected school boards. (See “Real Charter Reform.”) These are the critical issues of funding, equity, and public education as a public good that we must all be speaking about. And, no, we won’t be silent.

23 thoughts on “Won’t Be Silent

  1. I was glad Dr. Testa appeared, as I think he had quite a bit to defend. My perception of the discussion was that the moderator from PIIN (an important ally in this fight) did the best that he could given the twenty minute time limit and really diverse concerns. I do agree that it was most telling that when he *did* select the card that asked why the film hid the fact that a parent trigger law would turn public resources over to a private entity, Dr. Testa had to work very hard to generate any sort of answer. When he finally alighted on the notion that “we just need more films about education” –that we need “choices” in movies about education — the parent behind me groaned “Wal-Mart answer.” Teachers, engaged parents aren’t buying what Walden Media is selling.

    • Testa’s suggestion that we need 50 more films about education was also infuriating — just who is going to pay for those movies? There are some mighty deep pockets behind the attack on public education — and those of us here in the grassroots are fighting back as best we can. But to suggest we have the resources to make a movie is incredibly unrealistic, not to mention insulting.

    • I agree. I was in attendance as well. Was this the question that he initially responded with, “Well…it’s fiction…”? I’d like him to express that point on FOX news one day.

  2. I was at the screening on Wednesday I was literally of two minds. I was grateful to A+ Schools for organizing the event, and for an opportunity to see the movie without having to fork any dough over to Walden Media, but I was SO ANGRY that no one in the audience was allowed to speak. Like the author of Yinzercation, I hate to be silenced, and I marched out of that movie trying to figure out where, and how, my voice—-which proclaims that public education is a pubic good, and should stay that way—is going to get heard next.

  3. We wish we had had more time to be able to address all audience questions. We have submitted the questions that we were not able to be answered to the panelists to which they were addressed. We hope to be able to provide you and the rest of the public their responses in the coming week.

    • Thank you, A+ Schools — we do appreciate your organizing this event and look forward to seeing some more responses. But we need to seriously consider ways we can have a REAL dialogue about these issues. Silencing voices is never the answer. And what a missed opportunity with all those people in the room!

    • Nice to say “we’ll try to get to the issues that are more uncomfortable for us and let you know the response” but even better if there were more of an open and honest handling of the issues to begin with. Much like the faux “Town Halls” hosted by Ed Nation, the excessive control/staging is revealing. When you know you can’t honestly win, go for the win dishonestly.

      • I would respectfully disagree. We invited a neutral moderator and all questions were provided to him to be able to ask as he saw fit. We tried to organize questions based around common themes, but no question was censored or not provided to the moderator. We agree that more opportunity for people to talk to each other would be ideal, but the venue did not allow for that type of interaction within the timeframe that we were allowed to use the theater. We encourage ongoing dialogue about how to close the achievement gap at all of our schools and how to address some of the issues the movie raised in a constructive manner. Here’s our take on the event: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Moving-forward.html?soid=1102409756945&aid=UdwadW-0zgs.

  4. Jessie, I would offer this correction in your statement”Yet our voices were silenced again when the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) moderated the panel “discussion” by selecting only a few written questions solicited from the audience.” The questions were pre-selected by A+ schools and handed off to the PIIN moderator. We in no way shape for form try to silence any voices, ever! Irene Education Task Force Chair PIIN   Irene C. J. Habermann (Pronounced E-ray-na)

    Education should not bring about conformity but the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Paulo Freire (1921 – 1997)


    • Irene, I appreciate that. I just think we have to really consider *who* got to speak on Wednesday. And it was Walden Media. They were even passing out their literature afterwards. (Where was the public education side in all this?) It’s time to pull together and figure out how we can all talk about equity and funding — the two big issues that hold us all together.

    • I sorted the questions and I did not preselect any questions. I took the notecards from the audience and grouped the ones with similar topics together to make it easier for Rev Welch to ask a question that could encapsulate several questions. There were no questions that didn’t make it to the moderator. The limiting factor was time, not personal agendas.

      • If the reason we didn’t get to take enough audience questions about “Won’t Back Down” was time, why not have a new panel discussion at one of our schools? Perhaps we could do this in one of the Pittsburgh Public schools since the film is supposed to be set in our fair city. Then we can set the time limit however we want. Any takers?

      • But please, for the love of public education, make this an opportunity to talk about the REAL issues. And do not invite the slick propaganda maker himself and give him one more second of our time — or allow him to hand out more cute little Harvard brochures promoting radical parent-tricker laws and corporate-backed astroturf groups like “Parent Revolution”.

  5. Also, to be fair, I want to provide what the we asked of the audience in the introduction: “I have been asked to set a few ground rules for this evening’s presentation. We know this film is controversial and people have strong opinions about many of the things depicted. While we hope to have a spirited conversation about the film with our panel afterwards, we would ask out of respect for those differences of opinion, that you refrain from boos, cheers or other spontaneous outpourings of emotion during the film and panel discussion. Our purpose tonight is to let the film spark a discussion that can lead to greater engagement between parents and teachers in our schools that support student success. We have passed out note cards for you to ask questions. Please complete them and we will try to get to as many as we can with our panel after the film. Thank you.”

    • I appreciate this. And I do really appreciate that A+ Schools organized the screening (particularly since many of us did not want to send Walden Media a dime). I hope that as we move forward, we can think about how to include *parents* in the “discussion that can lead to greater engagement between parents and teachers…” The voices of parents — who are some of the most vocal public education advocates in Pennsylvania right now — were missing Wednesday.

  6. How about a ‘Parent Trigger’ that would NOT allow a teacher to be laid off, or a school to close, or a program (art, instrumental music, library) to be cut if 51% of the parents say they find it valuable. Now THAT would be some parent power!

  7. I agree that when dialogue is the goal, questions and comments should not be censored or limited to fit a corporate agenda. I find it remarkable that Walden Media was there. Why? Why? Why? Makes no sense.

    • Even if the movie does poorly at the box office, we know Walden Media will be trotting it around to private showings — such as those at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions — just as they did with “Waiting for Superman.” They don’t need a box-office hit in order to enter the national conversation with this movie. In many ways, the damage is already done by further legitimizing the national narrative of failing public schools and blaming teachers. My concern is not so much about fighting back against this particular movie, as it is fighting back against what this movie is about. That’s why it was so distressing to see no discussion of the real issues on Wednesday night.

      • Michael Gerson in a recent op-ed practically falls over himself trying to pump up the significance of this PR video production. I accidentally read it when I went home to get my girls from “Grandma and Grandpa”. Is Gerson linked, or simply paid to do this? His article, my response, and absolutely correct-the wealthy forces behind it won’t let it die. Lies repeated loudly and often enough become the truth to someone. http://dan-mcconnell.blogspot.com/

  8. My spies tell me that guests for this discussion may include Matthew J. Brouillette, President and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives and Helen Gym, former Notebook editor and a co-founder of Parents United for Public Education

    WHYY Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane
    Radio Times discusses parent trigger Monday October 8th at 10 am

    Are you familiar with the ‘parent trigger’ laws? And how do you feel about parents taking schools into their own hands to ensure the outcome of the children’s education and safety? Some states have enacted such laws, and there’s a bill in the Pa legislature to move this along in the commonwealth. Join us Monday morning at 10 to hear a debate on the controversial issue.
    You can listen live on Monday at this link: http://www.whyy.org/91FM/live.php

    Want to call in during the show?

  9. NPR ran a report on the film as if it were standard Hollywood production. Claudio Sanchez.

    Barbara McDowell Dowdall PFT, Local 3 Retirement Chapter

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