My daughter and I were having a discussion last week about public schools, teachers’ unions, and the pushback from documentaries like The Lottery and Waiting for “Superman.” Why, she wondered, do you always see parents in the picket lines with union teachers, or parents in public meetings trying to shout down moms and dads who are fighting for educational alternatives? I don’t have a good answer, except that Americans bought into the public school ideal long ago and have been loath to give it up.
It may be a misplaced sense of democracy: What works for one should work for all, and rather than taking kids out of the system, parents should be working harder to improve the system.
“Improving public schools” is the mantra of Parents Across America (PAA), a “grassroots, non-partisan” organization (which, according to the Boston Herald, receives funds from teachers unions). PAA stands against privatization (i.e., school choice and charter schools), high-stakes testing, and any attempt to curb union power. The organization has been gearing up for Won’t Back Down, a feature film about education reform, which the PAA describes as a “feel bad, not feel good” movie. Since Won’t Back Down adopts the surefire underdog formula of small people taking on big organizations and winning, it will probably make general audiences feel good. It’s the teachers’ unions who feel bad, and will not hesitate to tell you all about it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), accuses the filmmakers of “using the most blatant stereotypes.” Judging by the trailer, there’s some truth to the accusation (see video clip below). But Daniel Barnz, a self-identified liberal Democrat who wrote and directed the film, described the writing process as “surreal”—his fictional plot points never failed to play out somewhere in the country within a few weeks of writing them. He insists his theme is not anti-union but pro-teacher, with parents and teachers working together to create real alternatives for the kids. But since the story is about using a variation of “parent trigger” laws to transform the local P.S. into a charter school, union officials are not likely to be won over.
PAA has been at the vanguard of the protests, which helped provide a noisy counterpoint to the film’s gala premiere in New York City. Not content with sign-carrying, their website tells members it’s “Time to Tweet the Stars!” and provides message points and contact information—not only for the folks directly associated with the movie, but also those who were involved with the “Teachers Rock” concert that kicked off the film’s publicity on Aug. 14. How high-profile personalities like Meryl Streep and Morgan Freeman will be won over by a barrage of canned bullet points is not apparent. But PAA wants everybody else to know that Won’t Back Down is a product of right-wing groups and corporate interests, particularly Walden Media, owned by “Christian conservative” Philip Anshutz. In its review of the film, National Public Radio helpfully notes that Anshutz supports the teaching of creationism in the schools, “so the outfit is not without axes to grind.”
We could talk all day about axes to grind, and the kind of tactics that stomp any suggestion of reform that doesn’t have a union label. Why do so many people support, not just a failing system, but in many cases a failed system? The success of movies like Won’t Back Down would be a hopeful sign that the solid support for educational monopoly has begun to falter, and not a moment too soon.