Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Assault on Public Education: Inspired by Actual Events

Leo Zimmermann
  Activist, Researcher, and Writer in Baltimore, Maryland

The new film Won't Back Down, inspired by actual events, tells the uplifting story of parents and teachers fighting to control their school. Maggie Gyllenhaal, a working-class mom who's had enough, comes to spunky Black teacher Viola Davis with a crazy idea that just might work. They're fighting a vast network of miserable, bored teachers, power-hungry administrators, and wealthy union bosses. "I punished her because she does not follow rules!" says the authoritarian white teacher who imprisons Gyllenhall's cute kid in a closet. "All-out war is how we gotta look at it" says Davis as she surveys a row of model fighter planes. Davis and Gyllenhaal use "parent trigger laws" to abolish the school's clumsy bureaucracy and assert community control. At the end of the day, we've see a few courageous individuals take power back from an uncaring system.

It's a vision that the Democratic Party supports. Won't Back Down isn't scheduled for release until September 28, but delegates at this year's DNC were treated to an advance screening. The special event was sponsored by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group started by hedge fund managers which claims credit for the appointment of Arne Duncan as education secretary. Although the DFER billed the screening as a town hall, they weren't particularly interested in allowing two DAER to attend. Party leadership has made it clear which side they favor.
But the Democrats aren't the only ones who love Won't Back Down. The film has been shown at least two other times: at the Republican National Convention, and at a special benefit concert organized by Wal-Mart and Anschutz Film Group/Walden Media—organizations not previously known for protecting the public commons or standing up for the underdog. Teach for America (TFA) was another sponsor. Also playing at both conventions was Michelle Rhee, a famous education reformer who once, during her three years teaching (with TFA), taped her students' mouths shut when they wouldn't stop talking on the way to lunch. Rhee is one of many Democrat celebrities who now push Republican education policies.
Though they show different faces, these groups are heads of one hydra, serving an elite group of extremely wealthy people. They are fighting and winning a trans-partisan campaign to deliver the public educational system into the hands of private companies. And Won't Back Down is not just a tearjerker with Oscar aspirations and questionable framing: it is a two hour advertisement for a new campaign to make parent trigger laws a reality. If successful, these laws will enable an unprecedented wave of public school closures.
The forces of privatization are, sensibly, pursuing a strategy of infiltration, astroturfing, and co-option. Elizabeth Warren's "the system is rigged" speech at the DNC deploys the words of a radical critique to champion "small businesses" and "the middle class". (All we need to do is start with a "level playing field", because everyone wins in Monopoly.) Won't Back Down similarly exploits legitimate anger about our neglected public schools, redirecting blame away from the corporate culprits and towards the very people who have dedicated their lives to working with children. Perhaps even worse, the film depicts a successful attempt at community control—cooperation between parents, teachers and students, the radical event that we desperately need—and reduces it to the question of whether school choice is permitted.Yes, if we could only open a charter school, then other politics would become unnecessary. "Change the school, you change the neighborhood", Davis tells us with sincerity.
The film's release coincides not only with the parent trigger campaign and the presidential election, but also with a major strike by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). Contrary to the message of the 'reformers', Chicago's teachers do have support from local parents, who are frustrated with the systematic neglect of public education. The CTU is indeed contract changes for teachers. But they're also explicitly targeting the problems that afflict America's urban school systems, such as large class sizes and insufficient social services. They're demanding a return of art, music, and gym classes to public high schools. And they're calling attention to favoritism for charter schools combined with neglect for neighborhood schools that serve the nation's poor and minority children. 
The ultimate irony of the whole scenario is that the national union to which the Chicago teachers belong—the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—won't express support for a strike or even allow its membership to dissent against Obama's expansion of Bush-era education policies. These policies, which explicitly promote competition at all levels (among students and teachers as well as school systems and states), are antithetical to principles of labor solidarity. Yet the union bureaucracy—portrayed by 'education reformers' as a lumbering defender of rules and bad teachers—is in fact a tool used quite efficiently to dampen actual solidarity among teachers (and students and parents) who oppose the neoliberal onslaught. This apparatus captures the massive energy that flows inherently from organized labor, but carefully diffuses and directs it to serve status quo interests. (Still more easily, it captures the attention of the media.)
Shape-shifting Randi Weingarten, the collaborationist president of the AFT, first agreed with the movie's portrayal of bad teachers, then criticized it for its stereotypes, then acknowledged that many teachers were "crappy" but blamed their crappiness on insufficient evaluations. (Unlike the rank and file of her union, Weingarten explicitly favors the creation of charter schools.) Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association (the other major teacher's union) simply called it "a great movie". These leaders, who have quietly but desperately resisted the Chicago strike, will seek to undermine and contain it even as they weakly state their support.
In Chicago itself, it was only after the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) won control over the CTU—through an astounding campaign of aggressive grassroots organizing—that a strike appeared possible at all. The city's negotiators have already made progress in thwarting the strike by cutting early deals with more docile unions. Elaborate and overwhelming astroturfing, amplified by the mass media, creates the illusion of support for the 'reformers': The CTU's main opposition in Chicago, beyond Mayor Rahm Emanuel, comes from Stand for Students, another wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street trying to represent itself as a popular movement. As the money for neoliberal education reform soaks in, we can no expect resistance from political parties or "non-profit" institutions. Indeed, we cannot trust institutional boundaries at all when the whole arena is saturated by 'reformer' money.
In 1968 we saw a very different kind of teachers' strike in New York. A minority-run school board, empowered to make decisions for the Ocean Hill–Brownsville schools, actually implemented changes in curriculum and personnel—firing some white teachers in the process. Outraged union leaders, with media assistance, carefully drove a wedge between teachers and communities. They presented community control as a threat to the union bureaucracy—and the union bureaucracy as a critical check against the 'low standards' of the supposedly antisemitic Negro school board. New York's UFT (still the AFT's most powerful Local and the CTU's primary foil) so greatly feared community control that it shut down the entire city's school system with a 36-day strike. The school district challenged the perverse vision of individualist meritocracy that permeates American education; the UFT and other authorities found this challenge unacceptable.


Now privatizers including the UFT are recycling images of community control. Instead of black nationalists, we see a post-racial fantasy coalition, united not even by their poverty or sense of community so much as by their American dreaming. Instead of Dr. King, let alone Malcolm X, we get John Adams. Instead of socially-conscious education, we're told to demand a "good" education: defined no doubt as perpetual competition, high-stakes test preparation and workforcery. (Oh, and civics.) And the difference between a school staffed by volunteers from within the community and a school staffed by Teach for America (again: Wal-Mart's cosponsor at the WBD screening) couldn't be more stark.
The Chicago strike is neither a chaotic wildcat action nor a meaningless union power play. It actually seems to be a legitimate seizure of institutional machinery. If the CORE-led CTU comes out of this strike with its principles intact, it stands to make real gains on behalf of Chicago's children. Meanwhile, established neoliberal institutions—the two major parties, the union bureaucracy, and wealthy "non-profits" of all types—are united in wishing that this strike would just go away. 
The actual events that inspired Won't Back Down can't be the community takeover of a school through parent trigger laws because a takeover of this kind has never happened. The film presents a neoliberal fantasy cloaked in the image of popular uprising. Its real-life appeal thus comes from real resistance to the model it promotes—resistance which it desperately hopes to control.

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