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.

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Facts vs. Truth

Facts lie. And as Mark Twain said, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Tim Eller, Press Secretary for the PA Department of Education, was feeling defensive in a letter to the editor on Sunday, writing, “Let’s face it, the media’s attacks on the governor’s budget are nothing more than a call for higher taxes. Facts seem to be ignored when the argument is made that more money is needed.” [Penn Live, 6-17-12]

Actually, the Governor’s austerity budget is forcing school districts across the state to increase local property taxes, but there are many places Pennsylvania could be looking for money for public education – and a lot of them won’t cost taxpayers a dime. (See “Pizza and Silver Bullets” for our latest list of suggestions.) What Eller really wanted to do with his letter was to declare the following five “facts,” which practically beg for a little truth telling:

“Fact” #1: “In the 2010-11 school year — state, federal and local taxes combined — Pennsylvanians invested more than $26.5 billion into pre-K-12 education — an increase of $6 billion since 2004-05.”

Eller has been throwing around that large-sounding $26 billion figure for several months now – and this is actually the first time he has qualified it to show that he is really talking about federal, state, and local taxes combined. (See “The Accountability Hoax.”) To be clear: the state proposes to spend $10.6 billion next year on education – and this includes early childhood, K-12, the state higher education system, and our public libraries combined. [2012-2013 projected budget] Let’s put this in context: Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom ten out of all fifty states in spending on public education. And the PA legislature appropriates almost $500 per student per year less than the national average, and less than all of our contiguous states. (See “A New Mantra” for details.)

“Fact” #2: “Since 2004-05, the number of public school students dropped nearly 63,000, while the number of public school professionals increased by 9,500.”

Public school enrollments have declined – but not evenly or in all places. Some urban and poor districts have lost population, but have legacy costs of older buildings and fixed costs such as utility bills that do not decline. Places like Pittsburgh have to make hard decisions to close schools, but places like Duquesne are being forced to close up shop altogether and send their kids to neighboring districts – not because there aren’t students, but because of historical inequity in state funding that has compounded the crisis.

Last year Pennsylvania lost over 14,000 educators due to the state budget cuts, and thousands more teachers are losing their jobs this year. (See “No More Teachers, No More Books.”) And what about other school employees? Take Philadelphia, where every single bus driver, janitor, and maintenance worker got a pink slip this year – 1,400 members in all of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). [Philadelphia Inquirer, 1-3-12] If the state really has seen an increase in public school professionals, perhaps it is due to all those charter and cyber charter schools the Governor and his allies have been approving. We certainly haven’t seen an influx of teachers around here – just the opposite – ask the kids who will be sitting in classrooms with 30, 35, even 40 students next year. (See “Shifting Blame, A Shifty Trick” for examples.)

“Fact” #3: “In 2004-05, taxpayers contributed $228 million to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. In 2012-13, this will jump more than 300 percent to $916 million.”

Yep. The state has been under-funding the pension system for twenty years, despite numerous warnings, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It’s important to understand this issue, because it plays a huge role in the looming crisis for our public schools. (Please read “Pension History 101,” if you haven’t already.) But Eller seems to use this data here to suggest that public education itself is too costly. Get real. We absolutely must deal with the pension crisis, but we must also properly fund our public schools.

“Fact” #4: “In 2004-05, salaries and benefits paid by public schools totaled $12.8 billion. This increased 30 percent to $16.7 billion in 2010-11.”

Here’s another attempt to portray public education as too expensive. (As Pennsylvania native turned Harvard President Derek Bok famously said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”) But what this “fact” really attempts, in combination with the one above, is to portray teachers as the problem. Specifically their salaries and benefits. Did Governor Corbett work for free that one year he taught high school? I rather doubt it. Nor should he. Our teachers are professionals and deserve to earn reasonable middle-class wages for their work. And benefits. You know, those cushy things like health insurance so their kids can see doctors.

Sure, school districts and teachers unions need to work together to look at appropriate salary ladders. But portraying our educators as overpaid at the expense of taxpayers plays right into the broader attack on public workers that we are seeing across the country. And we need public workers. As we talked about yesterday, the vast majority of government workers are really teachers, firefighters, and police officers – and cutting those jobs has actually hurt the economy. (See “Economics 101.”)

“Fact” #5: “Gov. Corbett’s first two budgets will invest an additional $828 million in state support of public schools. It’s not that more money is needed. The public education system needs to refocus its efforts to ensure that students remain the No. 1 priority.”

Now that’s a whopper. Governor Corbett’s first two budgets actually slash $1 BILLION from public schools. Eller and his colleagues are usually very careful when they make this claim to say that they have increased funding for “basic education” – which is only one line item in the budget, while they have actually cut funding overall for schools. (See “Dishonesty Disguised as Generosity.”) But here he leaves out that caveat altogether. Where is he seeing an “additional $828 million in state support”? Governor Corbett actually allocated $372 million LESS last year alone for PK-12 education than the state spent in 2008-09, the year before federal stimulus dollars kicked in. (See “The Truth About the Numbers.”)

You can decide for yourself if Eller’s “facts” are lies, damned lies, or statistics. But to quote another well-known writer: the “truth will out.” (William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, for those of you keeping track of today’s literary references.)

Economics 101

Governor Corbett might want to get out his old economics textbook for a refresher. There is no evidence that his current economic policy – slashing essential public services while giving away billions to corporations – ever works.

After feeling the heat on his announcement that he would give away $1.7 BILLION to Shell Oil Co., Gov. Corbett went on the offensive last week. (See “Can Shell Educate Our Kids?”) He sent three of his cabinet secretaries to Beaver County Community College to tout the jobs his proposed petrochemical refinery plant would create. It was an ironic setting, given the governor’s simultaneous proposal to slash 30% from higher education.

Yet there they were, touting that the Shell cracker plant might employ up to 400 people and could create up to 10,000 temporary construction jobs. The American Chemistry Council estimates that another 2,400 jobs might be created in a manufacturing industry that could grow up around the plant. (That’s because Shell will have no state tax liability and could spend the money to build up associated industries.) [Penn Live, 6-14-12] That’s a lot of “mights” and “coulds.”

Those watching Harrisburg report that the Shell tax credit deal will “likely” pass, though “Republicans want some kind of assurance that the money will guarantee that jobs come with it.” And they note, “It helps that organized labor groups from the Pittsburgh area are supportive.” [New Jersey Herald, 6-17-12]

But best-case scenario, we’re looking at a couple thousand permanent jobs. Meanwhile, Gov. Corbett’s austerity budget has already eliminated over 14,000 public K-12 education jobs with many more losses to come. And many of those were actually good union jobs.

It seems that Governor Corbett shares a playbook with former Massachusetts governor, Mitt Romney, who blasted President Obama recently: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he snorted, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” [Washington Post, 6-8-12]

Princeton economics professor Paul Krugman took this slash and burn theory to task in his New York Times op-ed column over the weekend, saying “Conservatives love to pretend that there are vast armies of government bureaucrats doing who knows what; in reality, a majority of government workers are employed providing either education (teachers) or public protection (police officers and firefighters).” Krugman asked, “So would getting rid of teachers, police officers and firefighters help the American people?” Here is how Krugman answered:

“We now have a lot of evidence bearing on that question. … Conservatives would have you believe that our disappointing economic performance has somehow been caused by excessive government spending, which crowds out private job creation. But the reality is that private-sector job growth has more or less matched the recoveries from the last two recessions; the big difference this time is an unprecedented fall in public employment, which is now about 1.4 million jobs less than it would be if it had grown as fast as it did under President George W. Bush. And, if we had those extra jobs, the unemployment rate would be much lower than it is — something like 7.3 percent instead of 8.2 percent. It sure looks as if cutting government when the economy is deeply depressed hurts rather than helps the American people.”

Professor Krugman went on to explain how Europe is teetering on the brink of economic catastrophe due to austerity measures. Yet it’s ironic that “While Republicans love to engage in Europe-bashing, they’re actually the ones who want us to emulate European-style austerity and experience a European-style depression.”

Maybe Governor Corbett and his cabinet secretaries could enroll in Economics 101 at Beaver County Community College, assuming they are still able to offer that course after this year’s state budget cuts.