It was my intention on Monday to attend a private screening of “Won’t Back Down,” sponsored by StudentsFirst, with opening remarks by Mayor Karl Dean and a wrap up discussion panel. Unfortunately, StudentsFirst either miscounted seats or misunderstood what the word “reservation” means because I was one of many people with reservations who were told they didn’t have seats for the show. Oops. Fail.
Set in a poorer, urban neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the film’s protagonist Jamie Fitzpatrick (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a single mom whose daughter is dyslexic and is slipping through the cracks of the public school system. This is not really some heart warming movie akin to “Dangerous Minds” or “Stand and Deliver” in which protagonists are teachers who aspire to inspire students. In fact, the movie takes a different approach, portraying most teachers as lazy and unwilling to help students, as well as demonizing unions.
First of all, the education field in Middle Tennessee is highly competitive. New teacher accountability standards have weeded out poorly performing teachers and have reduced tenure to being a mere status symbol – not even tenured teachers’ jobs are safe. By the way, several of my good friends are teachers, and they have nothing in common with the majority of teachers portrayed in this film. Quite frankly, they work their asses off, and this film is a slap in their faces.
Secondly, Tennessee’s teachers’ union (TEA) does very little to help or protect do-nothing teachers, save for invite them to a couple membership conferences and offer legal aid if they find themselves in a sticky situation; therefore, let’s take unions out of it. When you take unions out of it, you’re left with the overarching theme of the film: push the agenda for charter schools. More specifically, charter proponents want viewers to know about the parent-trigger, and this is why I label the film propaganda.
If parents are “successful” with a parent-trigger movement, that means operations of an existing public school are handed over to the private or nonprofit sector, but the schools are still funded by public dollars. Keep in mind, there are two things standing in the way of a successful poor kids’ parent revolution as portrayed in the aforementioned FICTIONAL film:
1. The local education agency (LEA), the local school board, has to approve the change, which provides much needed checks and balances – checks and balances not present nor required when Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) pulls the trigger, but that’s another issue… This very important feature of Tennessee’s parent-trigger helps keep bad charter operators out of our state. It also ensures that needs are met in local districts and that the law is consistently followed.
2. Money. Do you really think poor parents in urban neighborhoods could pull the parent-trigger successfully without any help? Seriously? Let’s look at the recent situation with Great Hearts Academies. Affluent parents flew out to Arizona to scope out a charter organization that educates almost no ELL students (in a border state, mind you) and has only one school in a poverty-ridden district. These schools offer $5 per day catered lunches, request steep “suggested” minimum parent donations, and mandate text book fees – all things that would deter or prevent most economically disadvantaged parents from sending their kids there. In addition to affluent parents, Great Hearts had the backing of the Mayor, the Tennessee Department of Education, and pro-charter organizations with deep pockets. The very same pro-charter organizations even attempted to buy local school board seats in the recent election.
Let’s not forget, the Great Hearts Academies charter still failed to garner approval because the application didn’t meet the requirements set forth by the LEA. Now, if a charter organization the supposed caliber of Great Hearts failed to gain approval WITH the aforementioned amount of clout behind it, exactly what take-over could economically disadvantaged parents pull off? What kind of charter operator could they attract? What political strings could they pull? Someone needs to speak up for them. I can guaran-damn-tee you that economically disadvantaged kids are the ones slipping through the cracks, not the kids of affluent parents. Oh, but affluent parents would have you believe that they identify with the parents in “Won’t Back Down”…except for, you know, the poor part.