Films that Attack Public Education

"Parent Trigger" Movie Won't Back Down

Won't Back Down, a movie promoting privatized school reform method opened in theaters in September 2012. It is a fictional account—not a true story, of the operation of a school reform strategy called the parent trigger.  Won't Back Down was produced by Philip Anschutz's company, Walden Media, the same group that produced Waiting for SupermanWon't Back Down's subject is the "parent trigger,"a strategy being promoted by the pro-privatization organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and an organization called Parent Revolution, which was launched by charter school operator Steve Barr with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers and others.  Parent Revolution is an example of what is known as an "astroturf" organization; it pretends to be a grassroots group of parents, but it has, in reality, no significant grassroots. 

In California in 2010, the legislature passed "parent trigger" enabling legislation for parents to be able to seize a school by petition, replace staff, and turn operations over to a charter management organization. No real life example of a "parent trigger school" exists at this time.  Parents tried a parent trigger petition at one school in Compton, California, but the charter school that was to have taken over the school instead founded a school at a nearby location.  At another site, the parents' seizure of the school has been held up in a court action.

September 27, 2012: In a related item, here in this video, The United States of ALEC, Bill Moyers explores the reach of the American Legislative Exchange Council across the statehouses.  It is a scathing video report.

2013: UCC Publication Decries Privatization

Our own UCC JWM in-depth resource for the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year explores the public value of public education and the danger of privatization.

Thinking About the Film, Waiting for Superman

The new film, Waiting for Superman, has been hyped due to its creation by Davis Guggenheim, who also made the climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth.  Waiting for Superman also won an Audience Award at Sundance. 

Most reviewers agree that the film is moving, even heart-wrenching, as it explores the lives of children who have been "left behind" in public schools that continue to reflect large inequities. Guggenheim admits he sent his own children to private schools, but in the film he portrays four youths who participate in lotteries for places in small charter schools so that they can avoid large high schools portrayed as "dropout factories."

This is a story of individual heroes against an evil system, which is not to criticize the work of dedicated people, including Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone. It is just that heroes are portrayed as the solution and "entrenched" school bureaucracies and teacher’s unions as the enemy. The primary problem with this "good vs. evil" narrative is that the solution for better education for the mass of our nation’s 50 million children can’t possibly be through the work of individuals or individual schools, but must instead be achieved by improving the system of public schools the mass of children are likely to attend.

If you plan to see the film or to discuss it with a group in your congregation, we suggest you also explore the following resources for an alternative framing of the challenges for public education.

Resources from the church...

These resources present a very different way of assessing the problem and therefore a very different way to move forward.  As a people called to love our neighbors as ourselves, we in the church have looked for school reform that balances the needs of each particular child and family with the need to create a system that secures the rights and addresses the needs of all children. All the evidence suggests we must heap attention and resource opportunities on the public schools that society has left behind, rather than imagining we can find a quick "superman" solution by turning over the future of our poorest children to charter schools. After all, charter schools serve only about 4 percent of the children in school in the United States. Here are four policy directions the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries has continued to support as basic to school improvement:

  • Federal policy must address public school inequality.
    • Federal policy must reduce reliance on standardized tests as a primary “school improvement” strategy.
    • Federal policy must support and improve, not punish, public schools in America’s poorest communities.
    • Federal policy must improve public education as the bedrock of our democracy and public schools as the anchors of communities. 

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