The heavy promotion of the new film "Won't Back Down" is an attempt to foist so-called "parent triggers" upon public schools - if a majority of parents vote a school can be taken out of the public system and turned into a charter, while continuing to receive the funds from public taxation.
This is one of the key wet-dreams of the American Legislative Exchange Council, aka ALEC. The film has been funded by Walden Media, also involved in funding "Waiting for Superman," another film intended to bash teachers and teachers unions and to a degree public schools. The key person behind Walden is billionaire Philip Anschutz, a conservative Christian who pushes a right-wing religious perspective. Among the people promoting the film, about which I will offer a few comment below, are the likes of Michelle Rhee and the members of the so-called Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which has a lot of participation from hedge fund managers who have no current personal connection to public schools beyond the opportunity to profit from their proposed "reforms."
All of this is introductory material.
I hope I have not lost you.
What I want to do is to address the idea that a simple majority of parents in a public school should be allowed to take that school and its taxpayer funding out of the public school system.
Please keep reading.
Let me be absolutely clear - I am as opposed to parent trigger laws as I am of vouchers. Both are intended to undercut the very idea of public institutions, starting with our public schools.
I live in Arlington VA, with superb public schools, with a relatively low percentage of our households having children in the public schools, even though all of our households pay taxes that support those schools (those who rent have a portion of that rent used to pay the real estate taxes on the properties in which they live).
I thought I could demonstrate what a low percentage of households we have by doing a comparison with nearby Fairfax County, using data from the respective school systems and the US Census Bureau. Since statistics are from different sources, all figures cited are approximate.
school aged 24% 264,000
publ schl students 174,000
In Fairfax, even were there only 1 public school student in each household less than half the households would have students in public schools
Now Arlington County
school aged 16% 34,560
publ schl students 22,000
In Arlington, even were there only 1 public school student in each household less than a quarter of households would have students in public schools
In fact, in Arlington, it is around 10% of households actually having students in public schools.
There is another argument beyond whether or not households have students in the public schools. Some of our schools have attendance areas where the household income or the value of the domicile per family is significantly lower than those figures in other parts of the county. As it happens, with over 1/3 of our children receiving free and reduced lunches, often the larger families participating in the public schools are from our less well off neighborhoods. But the attendance area of our public schools does not effect the per pupil expenditure, which is level across the district.
All citizens get to vote on school bonds. All citizens get to vote for the County Board members who set the tax rates that pay for the public school.s
Many whose children attend those schools do not get to vote, because they are immigrants and not yet citizens, or in a few cases are accredited foreign diplomats or those residing temporarily while working at places like the IMF or the World Bank. Some of those are even exempt from paying the taxes that support the schools, because their housing is owned by their native nations and is thus exempt from real property taxes. Under Parent Trigger laws they would be entitled to vote on taking the school out of the public system even though the taxes that would continue to pay for them are not their responsibility because they are exempt.
Just a few facts that would seem to me to undercut the reasoning behind parent trigger laws, which realistically have little to do with improving education and everything to do with undercutting and privatizing public institutions while simultaneously destroying public employee unions - in this case the unions of teachers and administrators and of support personnel.
Let me reiterate a few points
1. In some school systems you may have a significant percentage of the parents who would not be able to vote because they are not citizens, yet their children will be affected by the outcome of the vote. If you were to set up a provision to allow them to vote on this issue, you are then allowing them to vote on a commitment of public funds when they are not allowed to vote for the elected officials or on bond issues or referenda that involve commitments of public funds.
2. The approach of the parent trigger is an undercutting of the idea of public institutions. This should not surprise us. It did not take ALEC to see a move to undercut public institutions in favor of privatization of government services. This privatizing of the Commons is something that has greatly contributed to the loss of the American Dream, and is part of the downward economic pressure on increasing numbers of Americans.
Let me also add this - the film "Won't Back Down" is propaganda. It is NOT based on any real events. The one attempt so far for use of a parent trigger, in California, has resulted in law suits by parents who claim their names were being shown as for taking the school out when that is not what they thought they were signing.
And it is not a very good film. While the official release is tomorrow, there are already a number of reviews, all critical. If I may quote from an email on an educational list in which I participate to give a sense:
AP review: movie “Fails to make the grade” http://shar.es/... “Theaters should install glow-in-the-dark versions of those old clunking classroom clocks so viewers can count the agonizing minutes ticking by as they watch the movie.”One of the stars of the film is Viola Davis. Sadly, she should know better. She is a graduate of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, which became famous when Arne Duncan praised the decision to fire all the teachers as a means of "fixing" the school when the real issue was the poverty of the community and the students. Davis is now advocating for a charter school in Central Falls, and that has included getting a $10,000 contribution from Ellen DeGeneres when appearing on her show.
NPR review: “Too-Easy Way Out” http://shar.es/... "something less honorable...propaganda piece w/ blame on its mind"
Salon review: “Won't Back Down" is an offensive, lame, union-bashing drama “ http://shar.es/...
“ …the movie is unbelievable crap and the whole project was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, also the moneybags behind the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” …“simpering, pseudo-inspirational pap, constructed with painful awkwardness and disconnected from any narrative plausibility or social reality…. script that has that disconnected, amateurish quality distinctive to conservative-oriented entertainment and plays written by fourth-graders…. a set of right-wing anti-union talking points disguised (with very limited success) as a mainstream motion-picture-type product. Someone needs to launch an investigation into what combination of crimes, dares, alcoholic binges and lapses in judgment got Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal into this movie…..,..”
Hollywood Reporter review” http://shar.es/... “ "pedestrian & insultingly tendentious..condescending... dumbed-down agenda film… Given the disingenuous way in which this lumbering movie pushes obvious buttons and manipulates the audience’s emotional investment while conveniently skimming the issues, it’s a mystery how some of these names got roped in.”
Variety’s Review: "disingenuous pot-stirrer...taking public for dummies...cardboard characterizations" http://shar.es/...
Only mixed review (that I’ve seen so far): Rex Reed in NY Observer review: http://shar.es/...
“This is Norma Rae with chalk and erasers in place of a sewing machine, except for one major difference—this time it’s the unions that stand in the way of progress. With that in mind, it’s little surprise that political conservatives at the press screening I attended booed loudly. [?] For the most part, the direction by Daniel Barnz is clear and substantial, and the screenplay, by the director and Brin Hill, is meticulously researched and stumble-free. As a message picture, its heart is in the right place. Too bad it doesn’t always manage to rise above a swirl of predictable Hollywood clichés.”
I want to close with a parallel to the parent trigger. Several people including my wife have participated in shaping this.
Imagine you are on a plane. For whatever reason, you are unhappy with the trip. The passengers decide to vote and replace the pilot - while you are in the air. Either your votes will be counted by your frequent flier miles, or else whoever has the most frequent flier miles will take the controls, even if s/he has no experience whatsoever as a pilot.
There is no evidence that charters perform better than do public schools.
If the issue is we want to change our public schools, empower the communities to make changes at a local level, while protecting civil rights and civil liberties. Allow individual schools to experiment with different models - that was the original intent of charters.
But under no circumstances should public resources and institutions that serve an entire community be able to be privatized, officially or effectively, by what is ultimately a minority of the community that is responsible for paying for those resources and institutions.
Just some thoughts from a former public school teacher, who lives in Arlington VA where he gladly pays taxes for schools he has never used as a parent because he has no children, but who benefits from the high quality of those schools starting with the increased value of his home, but extending to the better lives made possible for the students who pass through those classrooms.