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.