This week a film partially funded by Walden Media, which is owned by entrepreneur and conservative Philip Anschutz, will be released in theaters. The film, Won't Back Down, is a work of fiction but claims to be based on real life events and tells the story of a teacher and a parent in a 'failing' school who join forces to 'save their school.' Walden Media also funded Waiting for Superman, which was billed as a documentary on education and chronicled the stories of several families navigating the educational landscape intermixed with commentary from journalists, economists, philanthropists, and business folks who surmised the troubles of public education today. These two films differ in style, but their substance is aligned and their conclusion is the same: teacher unions are the obstacle to student achievement.
When Waiting for Superman was released, a group of parents and teachers, of which I was a part, responded to that film with our own documentary, The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. We highlighted the myths we believed were propagated in that film, shining a light on the corporate education reform movement, and called on parents, educators, young people and community members to demand real reform. Since then, the national conversation regarding education reform has gained more prominence. When we were making our film, the idea that there were forces attempting to privatize our public education system and that they aimed to use teacher unions as a scapegoat while citing poverty as an excuse rather than an important factor we as a society must address, was controversial. Today it is fair to say this conversation is accepted on national television.
Even though the national consciousness has been raised regarding issues related to education and folks are more engaged and informed than ever before, the efforts to misinform, malign, and muddy the truth remain. Won't Back Down takes its viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride and clearly pushes the perspective that teachers and their unions prevent progress. While I have my own views about an alternate vision for teacher unions, I am a proud union member, and know that teacher unions, regardless of their flaws, are committed to progress and student achievement; I also know they are all that stands in the way of the sale of our public education system to the highest bidder and that is precisely why they are being attacked.
In our film, we featured several parents and teachers who actually took a stand against the corporate reform movement. Whether it was parents and teachers who joined together to stop a charter school from being forced into their building against the will of the community, or to fight budget cuts that were ravaging their school, to beg the powers that be to stop the closing of a beloved neighborhood school that was long under-resourced and undermined, or begging for policy makers to prevent ballooning class sizes or stop wasting precious funds on high stakes testing when they could be diverted to culturally relevant and rich curriculum; they all shared real, true, authentic stories about how they, together, would not back down. There are thousands of real won't-back-down stories out there (I have shared my school community's here: http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2012/09/we-fought-invasion-of-ps-15-real-life.html and you can too), not based on actual events, but are actual events. Most of them involve fighting the very forces folks like Philip Anschutz fund.
There is at least one thing however that Won't Back Down gets right; it does take parents and teachers and young people working together to make our schools great. Unions are not obstacles in this and in fact are positioned to lead the collaboration. One must only look to Chicago to see a real won't-back-down story where the cast of characters include not lazy unionized teachers, but educators who together with parents, young people and community members are fighting for the schools they deserve.
I hope the folks who choose to see Won't Back Down return to their communities energized with the spirit of collaboration, not demonization, and together fight for real reforms for our schools.