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"Poverty Is the Problem" With our Public Schools, Not Teachers' Unions

Education expert Diane Ravitch and New York schoolteacher Brian Jones discuss the real problems with--and real solutions for--our public school system.

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JUAN GONZALEZ: Brian, you were heavily involved with this film,  The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman.

BRIAN JONES: Right, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Clearly, Waiting for Superman had a major impact across the country, in terms of this debate and was very much promoted by some of the television networks, as well. Why did you get involved in that, and what were you trying to do with the counter-documentary?

BRIAN JONES: Well, this film was made,  Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman was made, by a group called the Grassroots Education Movement. And we just felt that the film, having seen it, was so outrageous and so full of lies and slander and so slanted, before we even had done the homework of figuring out who was really behind it and who had funded it and all of that, just on its own, on its face value. But the other thing about the film is it was so effective. It was such a well-made film. I mean, it really takes you in. It’s artfully done, a beautifully made film. So, we thought, well, you know, we might have some idea how to use iMovie, and maybe we can make our own film. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Who funded  Waiting for Superman?

BRIAN JONES: Oh, well, it’s funded by all of the same forces that you’ve—it’s the same names that have lined up again and again. It’s actually escaping my mind at the moment. Do you remember?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, I can tell you that the two major producers—

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Gates was among them.

DIANE RAVITCH: No, the two major producers were Participant Media, whose CEO was previously the CEO of a for-profit chain of post-secondary institutions, vocational schools, for-profit. And the other company, Walden Media, is headed by a very conservative billionaire named Philip Anschutz, who contributes to the Discovery Institute, which is against evolution, and to all the right-wing think tanks that advocate for privatization and vouchers.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!’s Jaisal Noor spoke with author Lois Weiner about teacher unions. She’s the author of  The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions. I wanted to play a clip from that interview.

LOIS WEINER: Unlike school boards, unions are membership organizations. And we can’t just blame union leaders. We have to understand that the issue here is that teachers don’t see the unions as vehicles for struggle. And I think that if that—I think that if that doesn’t happen, we really are going to see the destruction of public education in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lois Weiner. Brian Jones, talk about the relationship between teachers and unions.

BRIAN JONES: Well, I think right now what we’ve seen is that teachers need to be more active in their unions. There needs to be a movement of ordinary teachers to challenge what we see, because we’re the ones who see it it happening in the classroom. I think we need to unite with parents and try to build a kind of social justice unionism that takes on not only questions of our working conditions, which are learning conditions, but also questions of curriculum and pedagogy. The group I’m a part of, the Grassroots Education Movement,, is trying to do just that right here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds. Can you address the issue of unions and teachers?

DIANE RAVITCH: Well, to me, the big issue today is there’s a narrative that says teachers are the problem in American education. I have been arguing poverty is the problem. We tie right into your segment on Dr. King. Poverty is the problem. Thirty-five percent of black kids live in poverty. Twenty percent of all American kids live in poverty. That’s the problem.

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