Wamart, Right-Wing Media Company Hold Star-Studded Benefit Promoting Education Reform Film
by Josh Eidelson
Asked over e-mail how AFG expected Won't Back Down to influence education policy debates, Weil said 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 adds that the film does not "advocate any specific approach," and that, "If anything, we hope the film will inspire parents to be aware of and involved in their children's educations."
Vilson describeds Walmart’s involvement in "Teachers Rock" as evidence of an agenda “to Walmart-ize teachers" by securing the power to “totally strip collective-bargaining rights and health benefits," and exercise discretion to replace teachers at will. As David Moberg has reported, Walmart has had a hostile relationship with organized labor for decades. None of its U.S. stores are unionized.
Walmart was a member of ALEC until May, when it ended its membership following pressure from activists after the killing of Trayvon Martin. A Walmart vice president wrote, in a letter reported by the Los Angeles Times, that ALEC had lost its proper focus on advancing "Jeffersonian principles of free markets." According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the Walton Family Foundation has historically been a major donor to organizations seeking to privatize public schools. Walmart declined a request for comment.
Vilson says he was particularly disappointed by Viola Davis' participation, given The Help star's past comments about wanting to elevate the voices of often-ignored domestic workers.
"You should also see the alignment between that and what's going on with teachers," says Vilson, "and the bad tone that's being sent throughout the country."
"I'm sorry," Davis told the New York Times, "I just know if you don't have a strong advocate for a child, they're not going to make it."
The New York Times reported that the trigger law portrayed in Won’t Back Down differs from its real life counterparts in a key respect: Unlike standard parent triggers laws which require just a majority of parents’ signatures to trigger a turnaround, the law in the movie requires support from a majority of a school’s teachers as well. Asked why, Weil told In These Times, "It was important that the law used be fictional because the film is not based on a specific actual law," but instead "draws on many situations throughout the country."
Asked whether "Teachers Rock" would address education policy, including teacher layoffs across the country, Weil said it would not. "It's a celebration of a group of unsung heroes of our society - our teachers," he says. "It is not intended to be a political event."
An Anti-Union Lightning Rod
Won't Back Down will reach theaters next month amid increasing national traction for parent trigger. In June, the policy received a unanimous endorsement from the U.S. Council of Mayors. Its supporters scored a key legal victory last month, when a Superior Court judge found that the Adelanto School District had erred in allowing parents to rescind their signatures on a trigger petition. Without the rescinded signatures, the petition lacked a majority.
According to the Los Angles Times, the pro-trigger group Parent Revolution accused opponents of trying "to bully and trick parents into rescinding their signature." The school board's president told the Times that the pro-trigger organization Parent Revolution and another group misled parents into signing the trigger petition by presenting it along with another petition calling for reforms, and telling them that the trigger petition would serve as leverage to support the other one. He said he will reccomend an appeal.
“If you want to transform the system so that it gets better results,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel says, “collective bargaining is a must. … There’s got to be a way for professionals who are in the classrooms with the students to have a voice.” Van Roekel, who leads the nation’s largest teachers union, describes trigger’s backers as a mix of people who “have good intentions,” and others “who are privateers who are trying to find ways to make money off the education process.”
Parent Revolution national advocacy director Michael Trujillo acknowledges that parent trigger could lead to the elimination of union recognition at a school, but says ending collective bargaining is not the goal: “It just adds the love of a mom and a father to that [bargaining] table.” He describes parent trigger as a reform that “hands raw power to moms and dads, giving them the power to be the change in their child’s failing school.”
Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza contests the claim the trigger empowers parents. Once the trigger is pulled, she says, parents like her are “not going to be in there telling these for-profit charter developers how to run their school.” Oropeza’s organization was part of the successful campaign to defeat a trigger law in Florida's legislature. “Parents are being used as a tool,” Oropeza charges, by people trying “to create a revenue stream for corporations. And the children are losing.”
Vilson accuses parent-trigger advocates of seeking to “take advantage of an often misinformed public” in order to “get their own sort of reforms in those otherwise unbreakable schools.” He names Parent Revolution as a group whose sponsors are “anti-union and frankly anti-professional,” and seeking to rebuild schools “in the hands of the one or two people who have the funding.”
As David Sirota has noted, several studies have found that charter schools perform worse overall than other public schools. Teachers at charter schools are far less likely than their other public school counterparts to have union contracts. Van Roekel says that education reforms should include measures to improve teacher retention: "We lose 47% of teachers hired in America within five years. There is no business large, small, or medium in America that could survive with that level of turnover."
Vilson cited New York City as a school district that has seen an improvement in test scores due to improvements in teachers’ professional development, rather than restriction of their rights. “Unfortunately,” he says, “that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
But Vilson says he expects the fundraiser and the film to be a boon for parent trigger supporters: “A lot of people are going to take it as fact.”