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Fiction No Match for Reality in 'Won't Back Down'

"Won't Back Down," the new movie financed by billionaire Philip Anschutz, is cited by reformers as an example of the power of teachers unions to obstruct efforts to improve failing schools. When reminded that the film is fiction even though it claims to be "inspired by true events," they are quick to point to Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, California to make their case. It was there that parents petitioned the school board to convert the school into a charter under the state's parent trigger law.

But events that followed are not what reformers maintain about teachers unions. Despite a Superior Court judge's order in July that the district had 30 days to begin the process of allowing a charter school to start this September, the school board stalled until the last minute before arguing that there wasn't enough time (" 'Parent trigger' obstructionism," Los Angeles Times, Sep. 10). The board then compounded its judicial defiance by refusing to approve plans for a charter school to open in September 2013.

In light of these facts, I find it hard to understand why the teachers union is depicted as the villain in this travesty. It's the school board that deserves the scarlet letter because it has final authority. I realize there is more mileage to be gained by privateers by engaging in typecasting. After all, their ultimate goal is to dismantle public schools in order to get their hands on the billions spent on public education in this country. But engaging in stereotyping has the risk of backfiring. Nevertheless, I should have been prepared. Anschutz also financed "Waiting for Superman," which used a similar script to idealize charter schools, most of which are non-unionized.

For readers who think that teachers are a monolith in opposing change, I suggest they consider events in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest. In 2007, teachers at Locke High School in the inner city petitioned for a takeover of their failing school by Green Dot charter schools. (This was before California passed the parent trigger law in 2010.) Although Green Dot is unionized, only 40 percent of the teachers at Locke who supported the takeover were rehired ("Bad Lessons From 'Won't Back Down,' " The Nation, Sept. 26).

Reformers defend this action by pointing out that student achievement has risen at Locke since then. What they don't mention, however, is that in the same time frame so has student performance at other inner city schools in the district without the use of the trigger. This error is an example of the base rate neglect: generalizing from a selected sample without bothering to see if the same thing is happening in the overall population. I'm not surprised that facts take a back seat to ideology among reformers. But what about embarrassment?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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