It’s all about the kids. But first, it’s about getting rid of the teachers’ union. And to do that, it’s handy to have a fictional film “inspired by true events” that tells the story of those lazy, corrupt union teachers.
They quit at 3 p.m. and don’t work overtime. They spend the day shopping on the Internet and talking on cell phones. The worst-performing teachers make the best salaries, they break the law to pass students who don’t show up and they hate (academic) freedom. They torture the slow kids, forcing them to wet their pants in class because they won’t give them bathroom breaks. Why, union teachers don’t even have an “articulated course curriculum,” so it’s no wonder they can’t teach!
In Won’t Back Down, screened last week by an unlikely consortium of local and national groups in what was described as an effort to spur dialogue, the head of the local teachers’ union snarls that he’ll consider the interests of the mistreated, learning-disabled (and adorable) young moppets “when schoolchildren start paying union dues!”
Like the high-school Wolverines of Red Dawn throwing off the yoke of Soviet tyranny, America’s young people have a team to save them from the ranks of union thugs. StudentsFirst, the national organization led by former Washington, D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee, wants to end all of that horror. The group, which is allied with Gov. Brian Sandoval as part of its national outreach to “ensure great teachers, access to great schools and effective use of public dollars,” is backing an effort that would get rid of teachers’ unions, coast to coast. The mechanism would be state laws called “parent triggers” that would allow parents (aided, potentially, by for-profit corporations that would then take over the school administration) to take schools out of public systems, transforming them into independent charter schools.
According to analyses, including one from the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance in June 2010, charter schools statistically aren’t better or worse than traditional public schools, despite the extraordinary success of a fictional charter school (“Rosa Parks Elementary”) presented in the movie. But because charters are small, independent workplaces, they aren’t union, either.
Molly Ball, a former Las Vegas scribe now writing for The Atlantic, earlier this month described the big-budget Hollywood project as a “propaganda film,” but noted that Rhee, who presided over intense controversy and a huge cheating scandal during her tenure as school chancellor, has support that goes up to the White House and the top levels of the Democratic Party. StudentsFirst screened Won’t Back Down at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
That bipartisan appeal reaches down to the local level. Here in Las Vegas, the screening was co-sponsored by Nevada’s Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, Las Vegas’ Public Education Foundation, the Nonprofit Community and Leadership Center of UNLV and the city of Las Vegas, along with the national “education reform” outfits StudentsFirst and Parent Revolution. Mayor Carolyn Goodman introduced the movie, while Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz, a Las Vegas Democrat and school teacher, joined a panel that included a local public school principal, private-school teacher and a veteran of a “parent trigger” charter takeover of a California school.
One of the conclusions from the panel was that additional funding for students won’t help, despite peer-reviewed studies that show a positive correlation between community investment and performance.
“We’ve already sunk so much into it,” said panel member Christine Simo, the private-school teacher who also was a former Clark County School District teacher fired, she said, under the “last-in, first-out” policy. “Research shows sinking more money into the system does not improve education.”
Research actually shows the contrary, including a January 2012 report by the Foundation for Child Development comparing child well-being among the states nationally. “States that spend more on education tend to have better child outcomes,” says the analysis, which ranked the overall well-being of Nevada’s children (with education a major component of that score) at 46th out of the 50 states. The debate over the funding-educational success issue continues unabated, with groups from the right such as the Nevada Public Research Institute arguing that there is no relationship.
The debate over funding hits a fever pitch in Nevada every two years as the Legislature meets. During the 2013 session, as in the last, funding issues may take a backseat to “reforms.” This time around, the reform will be the parent-trigger law.
And Won’t Back Down, conservatives hope, will be the basis for deciding what is best for students. The organizers of the screening said they don’t have a problem with using a work of fiction — even one, critics charge, that plays fast and loose with the facts — as the platform for public policy changes. That alarms public education advocates.
“Our real concern is that the movie, which is a Hollywood movie, is being used as the opening to say, ‘you need to pass parent trigger legislation so the same thing can happen in your community,’” said Pamela Grundy, a North Carolina parent of a sixth-grade students and co-founder of Parents Across America, a national group working against the StudentsFirst agenda. Grundy was one of a small group who protested, and was denied entrance to, the Won’t Back Down screening at the Democratic convention.
“This says ‘inspired by true events,’ but there is no actual use of this actual parent trigger that has improved a school,” Grundy said. “If you change a school from public to charter, somehow everything is magically going to get better? That has not been shown by actual events. Making a school into a charter is not going to make it a significantly better school.” Among other issues, charter schools don’t always provide the resources to teach students with special needs, Grundy said. “Every child needs a guaranteed seat at a school that’s going to meet their needs, and charter schools just don’t provide that.”
She said the Won’t Back Down screenings across the country are an “absolutely Astro Turf” movement supported by big money, anti-union organizers. The movie, which features a bevy of attractive stars including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Holly Hunter and Rosie Perez, was reportedly financed by conservative Christian activist and oil-industry billionaire Philip Anschutz.
Anschutz also financed the Rhee-idolizing documentary Waiting for Superman and is an owner of Regal Entertainment Group, a cinema chain that hosted the Las Vegas screening of Won’t Back Down at the tony Red Rock Resort in Summerlin.
Grundy and others question whether the real target is improving the quality of education or simply gutting public education.
“There are people who want to destroy public education,” she said. “There’s no question about that. What we are deeply troubled by is that there are people who do not want to destroy public education but are taking action on it [the parent trigger laws] anyway, making public schools less attractive to parents and teachers.
“The message that resonates here is that the fundamental problem is with the teachers, who are bad because they’re protected by the union. That’s fundamentally not true, but that is definitely the rhetoric.”
Rae Lathrop, a board member of Nevada’s Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, said her group is not opposed to teachers or teachers’ unions. Her network’s interest in co-sponsoring the screening was in “promoting dialogue,” and she suggested that there may be other opportunities to have dialogues that would include, for example, representatives of the teachers’ unions.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman said she’s not anti-union, but the movie should spark discussion on education issues, including deficiencies in Nevada’s system of funding public schools. Goodman, before becoming mayor, led the private Meadows School in Las Vegas, where high school tuition for this school year is almost $22,750 per pupil. (Goodman notes that about a fifth of the Meadows’ students are attending on scholarships.)
Nevada’s spending per pupil in 2010 was $6,399, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which ranks Nevada as the 46th lowest in spending-per-pupil in the nation — matching the ranking of overall child well-being.
Goodman’s take on unions is nuanced. She believes in incentives, especially better pay, for teachers whose students do well in standardized progress evaluations. She is opposed to tenure for public school teachers, a major plank in StudentsFirst’s platform. But she says teachers should not be vilified for the failure of schools to successfully teach.
Vouchers for students to attend non-union private schools and charter schools are not going to solve the issues, she says, and the most important reform would be to find, train and keep good teachers in the classroom.
“You pay them. Then you have to keep them. You have to keep them with incentives,” she said. “But no tenure.”
During a week in which a fictional treatment of the Prophet Mohammed led to violence, Goodman understands the power of images, even fictional images, to stir up passions. She said she hopes Won’t Back Down will rile people up, too, but to discuss the failures of public schools to teach.
Some of the reforms sought by StudentsFirst and others were passed by the 2011 Legislature. One law puts teachers who receive negative job evaluations two years in a row on probationary status, losing the protection of tenure or seniority. Another law established a pay incentive program for teachers with positive classroom outcomes, makes it easier to fire teachers, and requires school districts to consider performance when making layoffs.
Assemblywoman Diaz, during the panel discussion, noted that the changes, which she supported, are in place but it may take years to determine their effectiveness.
In the meantime, the union still represents public school teachers.
Ruben Murillo Jr., president of the Clark County Education Association, the local union for the school district, said the movie’s promotion of “parent trigger” laws is a union-busting effort that isn’t needed in Nevada. For nearly two decades, the state has allowed “empowerment schools” that give troubled schools great flexibility and autonomy in budgeting, staffing, school construction and even the school calendar. Among the elements of the empowerment law is greater accountability to teaching staff, who may have to agree to specific achievement targets.
“Teachers, parents, support staff, community leaders and administrators have a say in how a school operates,” Murillo said. The parent trigger law, he said, is more about privatizing schools than about addressing educational shortcomings.
One mom of four Clark County children said two of her kids are in the public school system, while another, with high-functioning autism, is enrolled in an online charter school. Centennial Hills resident Christine Kramar, whose youngest is not yet in school, has seen both sides.
“I am not filled with hostility toward the teachers’ unions,” Kramar said, and believes that the unions can play an important role in protecting teachers from administrative actions that don’t serve the best interests of young people. She worries that charter schools can, through requiring more time and money from parents — for example, hundreds of dollars for school uniforms — segregate affluent families into charter schools, leaving working-class families behind.
Kramar, a stay-at-home mom, said charter schools have other advantages not shared by traditional public schools; for example, public schools have to introduce new students into classrooms throughout the year, while charter schools fix their enrollment before the school year begins.
For Angie Sullivan, a 24-year veteran of public schools, including 12 years in the Clark County, those who watch the movie will blame teachers and their unions rather than funding or other issues. She disputes nearly all of the characterizations of unionized teachers presented in Won’t Back Down.
Sullivan said she and her colleagues, contrary to the movie, routinely put in 60 hours a week. She often arrives at her at-risk elementary school, Jesse D. Scott Elementary, before 6 a.m. and stays until after 6 p.m. — plus takes work home.
“Are people going to realize that this is a work of fiction?” Sullivan, who did not attend the screening, asked. “I think they’re going to get stirred up and want to get rid of their public schools. We’re just being demonized.”