One can’t help but be moved by the characters and story portrayed in Walden Media’s film “Won’t Back Down.” The film is successful in driving home the sense of urgency parents and educators feel to do everything they can to provide the best possible education for their children. That is abundantly evident in this film — it’s what I hear as I visit schools across the country, and it’s what I heard when I recently sat down with parent and community groups from across the country.
We share that pain and frustration. And we firmly believe that every public school should be a school where every parent would want to send his or her child and where every teacher would want to teach. Unfortunately, using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen — even worse than those in “Waiting for ‘Superman’” — the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions.
As a former public school teacher and president of the American Federation of Teachers, I have spent my entire adult life working on behalf of children and teachers. After viewing this film, I can tell you that if I had taught at that school, and if I were a member of that union, I would have joined the characters played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis. I would have led the effort to mobilize parents and teachers to turn around that school myself.
I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union. The teachers I know are women and men who have devoted their lives to helping children learn and grow and reach their full potential. These women and men come in early, stay late to mentor and tutor students, coach sports teams, advise the student council, work through lunch breaks, purchase school supplies using money from their own pockets, and spend their evenings planning lessons, grading papers and talking to parents. Yet their efforts, and the care with which they approach their work, are nowhere to be seen in this film.
This movie could have been a great opportunity to bring parents and teachers together to launch a national movement focused on real teacher and parent collaboration to help all children. Instead, this fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers. America’s teachers are already being asked to do more with less — budgets have been slashed, 300,000 teachers have been laid off since the start of the recession, class sizes have spiked, and more and more children are falling into poverty. And teachers are being demonized, marginalized and shamed by politicians and elites who want to undermine and dismiss their reform efforts.
Parent engagement is essential to ensuring children thrive in the classroom. The power of partnerships between parents, teachers and the community is at the heart of school change.
But instead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed, “Won’t Back Down” offers parents a false choice — you’re either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.
Real parent engagement means establishing meaningful ways for parents to be real partners in their children’s public education from the beginning — not just when a school is failing. The goal should be to never let a school get to that point. Parents are actually calling for real investments in their neighborhood public schools and that should be our collective focus.
Across the country, AFT teachers and leaders are partnering with parents and community groups to create real parent engagement that strengthens schools and neighborhoods:
In the South Bronx, the Community Collaborative to Improve District 9 Schools partnered with the United Federation of Teachers on a school reform agenda focused on teacher quality, school leadership and family-school partnerships. Through the partnership, teachers participated in neighborhood walks to visit with the families of their students. And they established the lead teacher program, which allowed experienced teachers to provide mentoring and guidance to newer and struggling teachers. CC9 members were involved in hiring the lead teachers.
In Minnesota, AFT affiliates negotiated the Parent-Teacher Home Visit Project into their contract, training teachers to visit their students’ families to establish bonds with parents outside of the school environment and help parents support their children’s learning. And the AFT’s affiliate in St. Paul surveyed parents to get their concerns and thoughts about their schools, and then incorporated the results into their contract negotiations.
In Connecticut, the AFT helped create a law that provided an avenue for parents to become involved in their children’s schools. The 2011 law requires that certain low-performing schools create school governance councils to develop parental involvement policies and make recommendations on administrator hiring and, ultimately, on the school improvement plan. School councils are composed of parents, teachers and community members, with parents having a majority. This year, Connecticut’s new education reform law requires the creation of such councils in every low-performing school in the state.
In Cincinnati and elsewhere, AFT locals are working to mitigate the impact that poverty and other out-of-school factors have on students by offering wrap-around services, including health and mental health services, meal programs, tutoring, counseling and after-school programs. Many of the services offered in Cincinnati schools were based on survey responses from neighborhood parents on what was needed for children and the neighborhood.
The AFT is leading a coalition of businesses, community groups, parents and educators to completely transform the educational and economic opportunities available to children and families in McDowell County, W.Va.
The AFT worked with a British corporation to develop a digital filing cabinet of lesson plans and resources for teachers called Share My Lesson. It’s an online community for teachers to share their best ideas and collaborate with one another.
Sadly, this film chooses to ignore these success stories and the many others happening across the county. Instead, it promotes the deceptively named “parent trigger” laws, which are marketed as parent-empowerment laws. Actually, these laws deny both parents and teachers a voice in improving schools and helping children, by using parents to give control of our schools over to for-profit corporations. Parent trigger laws are being pushed by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Walden Media owner and oil billionaire Philip Anschutz helps fund.
The film advances a policy that in reality limits teacher and parent voices, the very voices that are celebrated and empowered in the movie.
In real life, there have been only two attempts to pull the parent trigger. One never made it to the approval process. In Adelanto, Calif., where the trigger petition is still in progress, many parents report feeling deceived by the for-profit charter-backed organizers who came in to gather petitions. They actually sued to take their signatures back when they found out they were being used to give their school away to a charter company.
Confusing the matter even further, those supporting the parent trigger asked the court to rule that once a signature was on a petition, it could not be rescinded. The court ruled in their favor, stating that the parent trigger law did not allow for rescinded signatures. But just this month, the Adelanto school board rejected the parent trigger proponents’ call for a charter operator and instead instituted numerous reforms including the formation of a community advisory council, an extended school day and improved technology, among other reforms. In both situations, the use of the parent trigger law has been disruptive and divided the school community.
That’s one reason why a Florida parent coalition representing half a million parents joined with the Florida PTA and others to oppose parent trigger legislation when the bill was proposed there last year. They knew from the California parents’ experience that it would put all the power in the hands of for-profit companies, not public school parents.
It must be pointed out that the film contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people’s confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions.
The film advances the “bad teacher” narrative through the character of Deborah. This teacher barks at students from her desk, uses her cell phone in class, refuses to let students use the restroom, puts children in a closet as a disciplinary measure and resists all reform efforts, yet miraculously remains employed at the school. She tells parents that she refuses to stay after school hours to help her students, and Davis’ character in the film asserts that union rules prohibit teachers from working past 3 p.m., an egregious lie. I know of no contract or local union that would ever prevent a teacher from remaining after school to help a student or do the work necessary to help children.
Let’s be clear — this teacher, or any teacher who engages in such deplorable actions against children, should be fired for this outrageous behavior.
The film features the union leader sharing a quote that anti-public education ideologues and right-wing politicians often attribute to former AFT president Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Despite the frequency with which corporate interests claim Shanker said this, a review of news reports, speeches, and interviews with Shanker’s aides and biographers, and even an analysis by the Washington Post, failed to find any person or report that could corroborate the statement.
This is not the only time the movie resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes. Viola Davis’ character tells other teachers that the new school they create cannot be unionized because the union would restrict their ability to implement reforms that help kids. This is false — unions are democratic organizations made up of individual educators, and collective bargaining is the process by which individuals come together to make things better. Many examples demonstrate that far from blocking reform efforts, unions fight for the things children need to thrive in school, like safe classrooms and smaller class sizes. And unions empower educators to win the tools and voice they need to help children.
Half of all teachers in the United States do not have collective bargaining contracts. The reality is that the states with the highest union density — states such as Maryland, Massachusetts and Minnesota — are the states that lead the nation in student achievement. And a recent Education Sector survey of teachers made clear that America’s teachers — both union and nonunion — recognize the importance of unions in strengthening the teaching profession and our public schools.
Though deeply unfortunate, it is also unsurprising that “Won’t Back Down” is such a false and misleading depiction of teachers and unions. Anschutz’s business partner is on record saying that he intends to use Walden Media (which also produced the equally misleading “Waiting for ‘Superman’”), as way for him to promote their values.
A look at the organizations in which Anschutz invests makes those values crystal clear. He has funded 20 organizations, including ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and the National Right to Work Legal Defense and Education Foundation. All of these groups 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.
The last thing that the country and the debate over public education reform needs is another movie that maligns teachers, caricatures teachers unions and misleads the American public about what is happening in public education today. Children deserve great schools. That’s how we build great communities. And real public education reform comes from teachers, parents and communities working together to help all kids thrive.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further. To learn more about what AFT members are doing to help all children succeed, contact Marcus Mrowka at 202-531-0689 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.