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It is hard sometimes for advocates of public education to see our own movement, when we are active participants in it. But the critical and public reaction to the movie "Won't Back Down" is providing us with some evidence of how far we have come in the past two years.
It was two years ago that documentarian Davis Guggenheim released "Waiting For Superman," heavily loaded with the message that unions protect bad teachers, tenure provides jobs for life, and charter schools are the only hope for our children. The movie was a commercial failure in the theaters, but it was boosted by a $2 million grant from the Gates Foundation to pay for national publicity. It was also the centerpiece for the first Education Nation week hosted by NBC, which prominently featured its heroes, Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada. Oprah even devoted two shows to promoting the movie.
Reviewers were mostly favorable towards "Waiting For Superman." The web site Rotten Tomatoes aggregates reviews, and also collects feedback from ordinary folks who have seen the movies. "Waiting For Superman" got an overall rating of 89%, with an audience score that was 84% positive.
Flash forward two years, and witness the release this month of "Won't Back Down," another movie heavily financed and promoted by education "reformers," with a similar message that teacher unions are obstacles to school improvement. This time the reaction has been decidedly different. The Rotten Tomatoes site indicates a reviewer score of only 35% so far, in spite of efforts by staffers at Students First to boost the score.
This could just indicate a lousy movie, but a look at what the critics are writing suggests there is a far greater awareness of the complex issues at play in our schools. Movie critics have learned a lot in the past two years. Perhaps all of our writing and marching (and even striking) has begun to make a dent in public awareness.
Let's look at some specifics.
The majority of reviews for "Waiting For Superman" were decidedly positive. A review in Variety was written by John Anderson, who said:
Exhilarating, heartbreaking and righteous, Waiting for Superman is also a kind of high-minded thriller: Can the American education system be cured?
On the other hand, Variety's review of "Won't Back Down" was a bit less glowing. It was penned by Peter Debruge, who wrote:
Grossly oversimplifying the issue at hand, writer-director Daniel Barnz's disingenuous pot-stirrer plays to audiences' emotions rather than their intelligence.
Many reviewers are taking issue with the use of an emotionally loaded story to push a particular political agenda, one which demonizes teacher unions and promotes charter schools. But the movie is provoking some deeper discussions as well. Many reviewers are pointing out the source of funding for the film, and the strong political agenda that comes with it.
This morning I received an announcement that the US Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a "Cross-Country Tour to Discuss Education Reform," The announcement says
The forums will also include a private screening of Won't Back Down, a feature film based on the real-life story of a single mother who leads an education reform movement that transforms her daughter's chronically low-performing school.
This is part of a campaign they are calling "Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity."
The Chamber of Commerce is seeking to gain access to the $500 billion spent on education each year for profit-making corporations. They characterize our system of democratically controlled, community-based public education as some sort of "government monopoly," in order to undermine support for public schools and build support for free-market alternatives.
This parallels the promotion of Waiting For Superman in 2010, but this time public education advocates have done a much better job uncovering the dubious origins of this propaganda feature. A month ago, the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group showed the central role conservative Christian businessman Phillip Anschutz played in getting the movie made, along with his ally Rupert Murdoch - who has declared himself greatly interested in potential profits from the education sector.
The Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch exposed a close connection between the "parent trigger" used in WBD and the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC) which has promoted legislation allowing this maneuver in states across the country.
Activists from Parents Across America helped highlight the real consequences of pulling the "parent trigger." Leonie Haimson has done an excellent job tracking the controversy.
All this work has made a big dent in the public's understanding, as can be seen by some of the more in depth reviews. Ella Taylor at National Public Radio writes:
For all its strenuous feints at fair play, though, Won't Back Down is something less honorable -- a propaganda piece with blame on its mind.
Most impressive of all are the two pieces that have appeared at Salon Magazine. Their review by Andrew O'Hehir cuts to the heart of the matter:
As presented in this script (written by Barnz and Brin Hill), the Pittsburgh teachers' union has no goal beyond protecting the status quo at all costs, and no interest whatever - no altruistic interest, no self-interest and no public-relations interest -- in improving the quality of public education. Most people still understand, I believe, that teachers work extremely hard for little pay and low social status in a thankless, no-win situation. But this is one of those areas where conservatives have been extremely successful in dividing the working class, which is precisely the agenda in "Won't Back Down." Breeding hostility to unions in themselves, and occasionally insinuating that unionized teachers are a protected caste of incompetents who get three damn months off every single year, has been an effective tactic in what we might call postmodern Republican populism, especially in recent battles over public employee contracts in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It works something like this: 1) Turn the resentment and frustration of people like Jamie - people with crappy service-sector jobs and few benefits, whose kids are stuck in failing schools - against the declining group of public employees who still have a decent deal. 2) Strip away job security and collective bargaining; hand out beer and ukuleles instead. 3) La la la la, tax cuts, tax cuts, I can't hear you!
Today, this review was augmented by an analysis of the motives of those behind "Won't Back Down," written by Alexander Zaitchik.
...to focus on the parent-trigger plot mechanism in "Won't Back Down" is to misunderstand the long-term strategy of the deep-pocketed education reform movement. Its plan is to undermine public education from all fronts, to keep throwing reform bills at statehouse walls and see what sticks. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, the reform movement's own version of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), provides legislators with thick "policy combo-packs" and encourages them to file legislation in flurries. Anything that moves the needle of public opinion toward privatizing K-12 is a victory. And it's a victory for more than just for-profit charter and private school companies. The school-choice army is increasingly diverse. It has a growing "digital learning" wing of technology and software companies eager to "individualize" and "virtualize" American classrooms. There are film education companies like Walden Media, more about which in a minute. There are educational testing companies, such as News Corp's Wireless Generation, which have been used effectively to pummel public education but have an uncertain future in the brave new unregulated world imagined by corporate reformers. Keeping the alliance flush with tactics and strategy are the libertarian think tanks at war with teachers' unions and the idea that the rich should pay education taxes to support schools their children do not attend. (Given the movement's storefront claims to care deeply about poor students of color, it is odd -- well, not really -- that its lineage begins with the voucher schemes Milton Friedman cooked up in the immediate wake of Brown v. Board of Education.)
The producer of the film is reportedly surprised at the controversy. In this story that appeared in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, he seems to hope the controversy will blow over:
If you look at the successful issues movies, 'Erin Brockovich,' 'Norma Rae,' and you think about why you liked those movies, I bet you don't remember what the issues are. What you remember are the characters realizing they can accomplish something, going up against a monolithic institution and being able to change it.But in both Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae, we had heroic women standing up to corporate greed. While this may be a subtle distinction to some movie makers, it is dawning on many people paying attention that the substance matters, and as we saw in Chicago, unions can be one of the things that helps the powerless take on the powerful.
Update: More reviews coming in continue to show the same trend. From from Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times:
...unions turn out to be the most pernicious of all the obstacles to healthy schools, worse even than the stick-in-the-mud school board. While no one, not even unions themselves these days, denies that there are things that must be changed about how they operate, the notion of them as total evil only makes perfect sense to companies that believe in unionless, private charter schools that increase profits by paying teachers whatever they can get away with.
And from Ebony Magazine, Zerlina Maxwell writes:
Critics feel that the film pits the teachers' union, along with a "bad" teacher storyline, up against concerned parents who just want the best education for their children. Thus, the movie will likely inspire negative feelings about the unions and educators in struggling schools. Education reform is critically necessary but the conversation here becomes difficult. Is this "reform," or simply an attempt at privatization to place our education system in the hands of for-profit companies?
Update 2: "Won't Back Down" director Daniel Barnz has posted over at Huffington Post attempting to explain himself, but as I describe here, he faces many sharp questions from savvy readers.
What do you think? Are the critics and public at large getting smarter about what is at stake in the debate over public education?