Why 'Won't Back Down' Just Doesn't Stack Up
Continued from previous page
Yet in the movie, it is repeatedly asserted that the union contract prevents exactly this kind of work from taking place. (I suppose all those graded papers, lesson plans, letters of recommendation and after-school activities just happen by magic?) In this school, the contract and the union that backs it are blamed for teachers not helping kids and refusing to work after school. And except for the two teachers closest to the desperate mother played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, these teachers don’t appear to do all that much during the school day, either. The dour, bitter teachers on display during the first two-thirds of this movie looked very little like the committed, passionate teachers I know-- though I suppose it’s easy for a screenwriter to misread teachers’ bouts of fatigue or frustration as bitterness if they don’t understand where that frustration comes from. Managing 30 or so people at once requires a constant stream of attention and thousands of split-second decisions every day. Add to that inadequate resources and escalating demands, and formerly bright smiles will indeed begin to dim.
And while it’s true that almost every group featured in the movie-- parents who ignore petition requests, skeptical teachers, school board members, administrators, even the broad category of people who identify as “public school advocates”-- gets their moment to look unduly awful and uncaring, union leaders are clearly held up as uber-villains, from the fake anti-kid quotes they speak to the comic-book-style lair that is their office headquarters (which, if you ask me, could have been lifted right out of Gotham City). This portrayal completely ignores the care with which union leaders, too, approach their work -- on behalf of not just their members, but the cause of public education more generally. It’s especially ironic to see such a characterization now, when there are more examples than ever of union leaders and members going beyond their regular work (creating safe and effective teaching and learning environments) to initiate groundbreaking collaborative initiatives that benefit students and communities.
So what’s really going on here?
In real life, there has yet to be a completed instance of parents pulling the Parent Trigger, a law that allows 51% of parents at a low-scoring school to vote to impose more or less the same turnaround options the government currently imposes on schools under No Child Left Behind. Despite being hailed as yet another silver bullet to fix ailing schools, these options -- which include closure, restart (turning a school over to a private operator), and turnaround (where the principal and at least half the staff are fired) -- have largely failed to benefit the schools in question. Because the problems these schools face owe more to severe underfunding, failed policies like NCLB, and the injurious poverty many kids experience outside of school than anything that’s going on within the building, shutting down or charter-izing the schools simply can’t fix what’s wrong.
Nevertheless, certain policies embedded within NCLB remain very attractive to the corporate interest groups that stand to profit as all schools are forced to increase the high-stakes testing required to rank and sort schools, others that profit as low-ranked schools are turned over to education management firms (EMOs), and to ideologues who believe that privately run schools are inherently better than public ones. Perhaps recognizing that these conversion policies will have more credibility if they’re requested by parents rather than government bureaucrats, for-profit education companies have funded and backed astroturf groups to manufacture local support for trigger petition drives in states like California. Meanwhile, parents in Parent Trigger sites like Adelanto, CA have reported feeling deceived throughout the process, and local school officials are still trying to sort through the legal and practical problems the trigger petition has caused.