By Steve Gunn
HOLLYWOOD – America’s teachers unions have already done more than enough to portray themselves as real-life villains.
Their salaries and benefits dominate overstretched school budgets, yet they generally refuse to make any concessions to help schools preserve student services.
They insist on protecting tenure and “last in, first out” layoff policies, even when it guarantees that burned out teachers will remain on the job and highly motived young teachers get the pink slip.
They continue to oppose school choice policies that would allow underserved students to escape failing schools.
So why are they so upset about their negative portrayal in an upcoming movie?
The film in question is “Won’t Back Down,” the fictional story of a frustrated mother (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a sympathetic teacher (Viola Davis) who try to apply a “parent trigger” law to transform a failing public school into a charter school.
The antagonist in the movie is the local teachers union president (Holly Hunter), who reportedly works overtime to get in the way of the “parent trigger” effort. The unions say it’s an inaccurate and unfair portrayal.
We know for a fact it’s not.
It’s only been a few weeks since the parents of students at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, California won a court battle that supposedly allows them to open the first “parent trigger” school in the nation.
Their struggle wasn’t easy. The local teachers union became hostile during the petition process, with union members reportedly knocking on parents’ doors and convincing them to rescind their signatures from the petitions.
Intimidation tactics were reportedly used, with some union personnel allegedly suggesting to Mexican parents that their petition signatures could get them deported.
In Connecticut, the state teachers union successfully killed a parent trigger proposal through its political connections in the state legislature. Parents instead were only allowed to be members of weak “school government councils,” on which they only have advisory powers.
Union officials bragged about killing that parent trigger effort at their national convention. They infamously referred to parents as “the opposition.”
The unions don’t like “parent trigger” laws because they allow the replacement of much of a failing school’s staff, or transformation into charter schools, which wisely avoid hiring union teachers.
So, in a very real way, “Won’t Back Down” is based on several very true stories – desperate parents fighting to improve local schools and union personnel doing all they can to sabotage their efforts.
If the unions insist on being villains, they shouldn’t be surprised when they become typecast.
Inspiring parents to be involved
“Won’t Back Down” is scheduled for release in theaters across the nation Sept. 28.
Its producers are giving it plenty of promotion. An Aug. 14 fundraising concert called “Teachers Rock,” featuring a preview of “Won’t Back Down,” was shown as a CBS television network special three nights later.
A promotional release describes the movie as “a powerful story, inspired by true events, about determined mothers who will stop at nothing to transform their childrens’ failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy and a system mired in traditional thinking, they risk everything to make a difference in the education and future of their children.”
Anschutz Film Group CEO David Weil said the film “highlights the importance of teachers and education and seeks to inspire parents to believe that they can make a difference in the lives of schools and teachers.”
The movie was produced by AFG’s Walden Media subsidiary, which also produced the much-ballyhooed “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that assigned teachers unions their share of blame for the problems plaguing public schools.
Everyone involved with “Won’t Back Down” is counting on a better box office showing than “Waiting for Superman,” if for no other reason than a fictional drama with a heart-tugging story line and major stars will always sell more tickets than a cold-blooded documentary.
“The idea is to reach a much larger audience through the power of actors playing complicated characters who struggle with issues that happen to be ripped from the headlines,” Walden CEO Michael Bostick told the New York Times.
But can the movie make a real-life difference when it comes to reforming public education and empowering taxpayers and parents?
The movie “explores many different approaches to issues that parents face every day as they selflessly advocate for their children to receive the promise of a great education,” Weil was quoted as saying. “If anything, we hope the film will inspire parents to be aware of and involved in their children’s educations.”
Unions already attacking the movie
Of course teachers unions are all about politics, and politics are all about the “attack and discredit” game.
A recent Washington Post editorial quotes union apologist Rita Solnet, who immediately dismisses the movie because it begins with a message across the screen, “Inspired by Actual Events.”
“That conveys the message that parents and teachers took over and ran a school somewhere in our nation,” Solnet wrote. “That never happened.”
She’s right. It hasn’t happened at Desert Trails Elementary, because the teachers union and school board continue to stand in the way with repeated legal challenges and appeals. The same thing is happening at an elementary school in the atrocious Compton school district in California.
If the movie veers off into pure fiction, it’s only because of its happy ending. Thus far the unions have prevented any real life happy endings.
Solnet goes on to describe parent trigger laws adopted on California and a few other states as “divisive” and “unsuccessful.” But as Solnet herself pointed out, there have yet to be any parent trigger schools, so we have no idea whether they will be successful.
Of course Solnet includes the tired union argument that standardized tests are to blame for the problems in public schools.
“You never once saw a child even taking a test (in the movie) — and we know that standardized tests take many weeks out of instructional time, with even more for test prep,” she wrote.
In other words, just stop measuring kids’ knowledge with those pesky tests and all will be well with public schools. What a pathetic excuse. It seems to us that kids get tested on the fundamentals they are supposed to learn in the classroom, and test preparation only drives home those lessons.
Solnet suggests that the public is frightened of parent trigger laws. She uses Florida as an example, where a parent trigger bill recently died in the legislature because “not a single major parent organization – including the PTA – endorsed it for fear it would lead to the takeover of public schools by for-profit charter management companies.”
First of all, the vote in the Florida Senate was a 20-20 tie. One more “yes” vote would have sent the parent trigger proposal to the friendly desk of Gov. Rick Scott, and proponents plan to reintroduced the bill in the legislature.
And what in the world is wrong with a “for profit” charter school company running a school? If they do better than their public school predecessors, who cares if they make a profit? That’s hardly a crime in America – yet.
In the movie, Holly Hunter’s union president character reportedly asks, “When did Norma Rae become the bad guy?” referring to the heroic female union organizer from the 1979 movie of the same name.
Well, that Norma Rae was fighting for a bunch of poorly treated factory workers who clearly deserved something better. Today’s teachers union officials are fighting to maintain a status quo that hurts students by forcing them to remain in local schools that are not producing results, or fighting efforts to improve those schools.
That’s why the teachers unions are the real-life bad guys. There’s nothing fictional about it.