Budget Talk

As we get closer to the end-of-June deadline, our legislators are finally talking about the state budget. Yesterday, the Republicans in the PA House proposed their own budget in response to Governor Corbett’s plan, announced in February. [See “Budget with a But”] Their version adds $10 million more for education, bringing the total increase to $100 million. [PA House GOP Proposed 2013-14 Budget] After two devastating years of cuts, any increase is good – but $100 million doesn’t get us close to the nearly $2 billion our kids have lost.

Perhaps most telling, the Republican plan counts on $85 million in “savings” from all the teachers who lost their jobs last year (since the state now won’t have to pay their portion of Social Security and pensions). However, rather than putting those “savings” fully back into education, the House GOP shifts $75 million over to other line items. Yet overall, this Republican budget spends $100 million less than even Gov. Corbett proposed, so there are plenty of cuts all around – including $32 million less for the Department of Public Welfare and a $3 million cut to child care services for the working poor. Meanwhile, the legislature would receive a $4 million increase for itself under this plan. [Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center analysis, 5-29-13]

The House GOP budget also fails to grapple with desperately needed pension reform. Gov. Corbett proposed some pension changes earlier this year, but this plan does not include any savings from those proposed changes. It also fails to take advantage of savings that Pennsylvania would see under the Affordable Care Act. By refusing to expand our Medicaid program using available federal aid, Gov. Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature are refusing crucial funds that could free up other dollars to help school districts crippled by their own budget cuts. Is it any surprise that Corbett’s disapproval rating just ranked him as the 5th worst Governor in the nation? [FiveThirtyEight at the NYT, 5-28-13]

At least his crazy plan to tie school funding to liquor privatization seems to be off the table for now. [See “Kids or Booze”] And the PA Budget and Policy Center reports that, “some lawmakers—and even the Corbett administration—are considering a delay in the phaseout of the capital stock and franchise tax.” The state has been rolling back this corporate tax, which is scheduled to be completely eliminated by next year. But if lawmakers freeze the tax at 2012 levels, the state could raise around $390 million to offset additional budget cuts. [PBPC, 5-29-13] This one is a no brainer. Pennsylvania taxpayers simply can’t afford all these corporate giveaways, which have tripled in just the past ten years: the legislature is now handing out well over $3 BILLION of our dollars to their corporate friends every year. [PBPC, 3-12-13]

While putting some money back into the “basic education subsidy” (one line item in the state education budget out of many), the proposed House Republican budget also leaves out many things. Our friend Larry Feinberg of the Keystone State Education Coalition reminds us that in fiscal year 2008-09, well before any federal stimulus money was applied to the state budget, “there were several line items in addition to the basic education subsidy that no longer exist or are significantly reduced.” [KSEC, 5-30-13] These include:

  • High School Reform, $10.7 million eliminated
  • Accountability Block Grant, $171.4 million reduction
  • Tutoring, $65.1 million eliminated
  • Dual Enrollment, $10.0 million eliminated
  • Science: It’s Elementary, $13.6 million eliminated
  • School Improvement Grants, $22.8 million eliminated
  • Charter School Reimbursement, $226.9 million eliminated

That’s a total of $520.5 million eliminated to these programs alone. [See data comparison from Philadelphia Senator Vincent Hughes]

While House Republicans released their budget yesterday, House Democrats held a public hearing on education over on the other side of the state. Parents were invited to speak, along with our colleagues at the PA Budget and Policy Center and the Education Law Center. But I was disappointed to see that the corporate-reform group, Students First, was also given time on the agenda.

That is the organization founded by former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, most well known for firing people live on film, mass closings of schools, and a high-stakes-testing cheating scandal that appears to have unfolded with her knowledge. Despite that scandal, and confirmed cheating by adults in 37 other states, Rhee and her Students First continue to promote high-stakes-testing as the solution to our education woes. [See “A Plague of Cheating”] Students First PA promotes a school letter grading system based on the results of those tests, along with parent trigger laws – also known as parent “tricker” laws, which trick parents into thinking they have control over their schools, when in reality they are handing control over to privately managed companies. [See “Won’t Be Silent”]

Fortunately, our friend Colleen Kennedy, a public education advocate in Upper Darby and founder of the grassroots group, Save Upper Darby Arts, was at the hearing and reports, “Overall it was a productive meeting, and I think that most of the legislators are not falling for the corporate Students First approach.” Let’s hope she is right.

Speaking of Upper Darby, another group of parents in that district (which is right outside of Philadelphia), created a helpful petition on special education funding aimed at our state legislature during this budget negotiation season. This is a particularly detailed petition laying out the problems with the current way the state funds special education, negatively impacting all of our schools. I encourage you to read it and sign.

It’s time to get our legislators talking about what our kids really need in the next state budget: adequate, equitable, and sustainable public funding for their public schools. Get to work and fix special ed funding. Fix the charter funding formula. Fix the state funding formula. Get serious about pension reform. Accept available federal dollars to provide expanded healthcare coverage in Pennsylvania and free up funding for our schools. And stop giving away billions of our taxpayer dollars to corporations. You’ve got four weeks until the state budget is due. Go.

Astroturf

They’re heeeeeere! Yes, we’ve been watching the astroturf groups set up shop in Pennsylvania, and now they are here in Pittsburgh. Astroturf groups are fake grassroots organizations. They are funded by deep pockets, manipulated to look like local efforts to give the impression that they represent real community opinion. But they are as authentic as a field of plastic grass. (For a great example, see this explanation of Parent Revolution, an astroturf group in California funded by venture capitalists interested in charterizing public schools through parent trigger laws.)

The first astroturf group popped up here like a weed last month just as the weather started to warm. Called “Shepherding the Next Generation,” this Washington D.C. based group received money from the Gates Foundation to start working in Pittsburgh. They’re not hiding that fact – it’s right there in small print at the bottom of the flyer they are passing out to local churches in an effort to recruit them (though it’s not on their web site). They call themselves an “alliance of Pittsburgh religious leaders who strongly support community efforts to make sure our children have the best chance at succeeding in school and later in life.” So far, sounds good, right?

Well, first of all, there is no alliance. The group just hired an organizer who has been approaching churches – especially those in our African American communities – to try to encourage them to join. Want a real alliance of religious leaders who have been actively working on public education for the past three years? Try PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, with over 50 area congregational members (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, and everything in between).

What Shepherding the Next Generation is really up to is promoting the Gates agenda of teacher evaluation: “We work to educate our clergy members about the critical elements for improving our schools, focusing on teaching effectiveness and helping kids to succeed. The clergy then, in turn, help educate their congregations and the public. … while also encouraging  Pittsburgh Schools to adopt the most effective ways to hire, retain and train good teachers.” [SNG flyer]

shepherding the next generation p1 shepherding the next generation p2

As we know, the Gates Foundation has been pouring its money into teacher evaluation programs around the country, including $40 million to the Pittsburgh Public School district for teacher evaluation. [See “The VAM Sham”] The problem with this is twofold. First, it focuses on the wrong thing. Gates and the corporate-style reformers who promote teacher evaluation will always say that teachers are the most important “in school” factor affecting learning — but really, this comes out to about 15-20% at most of measurable factors. By far the biggest influence on student learning is out-of-school factors.

And this is where poverty is the real story. So while Gates and others are pumping money into teacher evaluation and trying get “better” teachers, they refuse to acknowledge (or at least downplay) the very real role of poverty and its impact on our kids and learning. A favorite line of the corporate-reformers is that “poverty is no excuse” for student performance. But this is a huge equity issue. What if those organizations put all that money into real poverty programs? It pains me to think about our clergy here in Pittsburgh being urged to talk about fixing education by making teachers better, while ignoring poverty — the issue that should be near and dear to the hearts of all our faith leaders.

Second, even among in-school factors, we have to ask why the corporate-reformers are so focused on teachers. This starts with the assumption that we have a plague of bad teaching. And this is just not what I am seeing. Of course we want good teachers in front of every child. And of course we need to make sure that poor teachers are shown the door. (Though remember the definition of “bad” is a moving target – a “bad” teacher this year might have been great last year, and may be good next year – and much of what we really value in teaching, such as inspiring kids, cannot be measured on a high-stakes-test.) What I am seeing are teachers struggling with massive budget cuts, years of inequitable resource distribution, a drastic narrowing of the curriculum due to high-stakes-testing, and teachers battling a tidal wave of de-professionalization and vilification.

What if Shepherding the Next Generation put its time and resources into fighting for adequate, equitable, and sustainable state funding for our schools? Or lobbied Harrisburg for charter reform that would save our districts millions of desperately needed dollars? What if it helped us have a conversation about the impact of mass school closure on communities of color? What if it worked to help us build local schools into community centers, filled with vibrant resources for the entire neighborhood? Or helped us find creative business partners to fill unused school space?

Even those who are still fans of Gates and his agenda ought to be wary of this astroturf phenomenon. Having one of the wealthiest people on the planet funding outside organizations like this to come into a community and shift the public conversation seriously erodes democracy.

Now how about this group: the “Center for Public Justice” is another Washington D.C. based organization that just waltzed into town. In a Facebook invite that went up last week, the Center says it “has embarked on a new pilot program in the city of Pittsburgh called Christians Investing in Public Education.” What that investment will be is not clear. What is clear, however, is the Center’s evangelical religious mission. The group calls homosexuality “abnormal and immoral” and an “unhealthy form of human relationship.” [CPJ website] They oppose gay marriage and don’t believe in reproductive rights.

They do believe in our public taxpayer dollars being used to fund private religious schools, despite the fact that it’s against our state constitution. (See discussion of the Blaine Amendment, under “There’s Nothing Smart About ALEC”.) The Center believes that “public funding should be offered without regard to the religious, philosophical, or pedagogical differences among the variety of certified schools parents choose.” To this end, the group explicitly promotes vouchers and religious charter schools.

The Center also wants to de-regulate what is taught in school. They argue, “Schools receiving public support, whether via vouchers or directly, should be free to hire staff and to design curricula that reflect their distinctive educational, philosophical, and religious missions.” What this really means, of course, is that teachers ought to be able to teach creationism in science class. Never mind that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that this violates the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution (the separation of church and state). There is even a 2005 federal decision that came out of a Pennsylvania court case ruling that “intelligent design” and creationism are the same thing and may not be taught in public schools.

This is a hot topic right now, as a Post-Gazette report this past weekend revealed. Almost 20% of science teachers believe in creationism. And a Penn State survey found that despite the law, between 17-21% of teachers bring the concept into their classrooms. [Post-Gazette, 4-28-13] Have you seen the 4th grade “science” quiz making the rounds on Facebook this past month? It shows the astonishing way in which “young earth” creationists (who take the Bible literally and believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary) are teaching school children that people and dinosaurs lived together on the planet.

Unfortunately, this Center for Public Justice group planned to host three sessions this week – using Pittsburgh Public School space – to meet with parents, teachers, and school administrators. The Education Law Center verified that the school district has a facility use policy allowing all groups to request space. This is obviously a good thing as far as free speech is concerned. But it also means that our own public schools might be forced to host bigoted groups like this one bent on privatizing them right out of existence. So we have to stay vigilant about organizations that pop into town and ask lots of questions.

Fortunately, after we started doing just that last week, the Center announced that it is “postponing” its sessions. Who knows if their decision is related or if they will be back? But we better be on the lookout, because these groups with clear privatization agendas and astroturf organizations have found the road to Pittsburgh. They might be surprised to learn that Yinzer Nation is no fan of the fake stuff – even Heinz Field has real green grass for our beloved Steelers. And PNC Park sports the real stuff for our Pirates, too. Astroturf us? Git’aht!

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.

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.”

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.

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.