By David William.
The movie “Won’t Back Down” is a movie promoted by “Students First” with ulterior political, social and financial motives. The “Students First” web site (www.studentsfirst.org) is pushing the movie hard and sending out email blast such as the following one from Michelle Rhee the CEO of “Students First” in which she says: “I’ll be honest”…(whenever somebody starts off like that the first reaction should be to check for your wallet). She then goes on to say: “I am not a big moviegoer. Between work and my kids, it can be hard to find the time. But if more films were like “Won’t Back Down,” I’d find myself dragging my husband, Kevin, to the movies all the time.”
Michelle Rhee then makes no secret in this email of the agenda of “Students First” and the ulterior political, financial and social motive of the movie “Won’t Back Down” by stating: “We’ve taken this film to both the Republican and Democratic conventions and been blown away by the response we’ve gotten. I believe this film has the power to inspire millions of people to bring education reform to their communities — and that is why I want you to see it.”
Once on gets past all the buzz words like “Support Good Teachers”, it is clear from the “Students First” web site that “education reform” means privatized charter schools funded by the taxpayers. Their web site makes no secret that their agenda is to push politicians, parents and students to support privatized schools, which then becomes just a small leap to a school voucher program on a state-by-state basis or even on a national level. Their strategies and the theme of “Won’t Back Down” are to convince politicians, parents and children that public schools are failures. Their villains are teacher unions, regulations, bureaucracies and bad tenured teachers that they say are destroying public schools. They portray most unionized public school teachers as incompetent, lazy and over paid. The message is that privatized schools can fix all the problems and provide a better education for all children in grades k-12, than can our current public school system. All they say that is needed is to get rid of teacher unions, fire tenured teachers, eliminate bureaucracy and just hire “good teachers” instead.
The movie “Won’t Back Down” had a production budget of $19 million. According to Maggie Gullenhall of Salon.com the movie was financed by conservative Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz, who also financed “Waiting for Superman” which had a similar theme of bashing public schools and pushing privatized schools. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and un-named private foundations have spent $2 million promoting the movie in newsprint and TV ads according to Stephanie Simon of the Chicago Tribune. While most of the movie’s reviews have panned it calling it trite and dull; don’t expect the movie to disappear into the failed movie graveyard anytime soon.
The movie “Won’t Back Down” is going to be the foundation upon which “Students First” will further lobby state legislatures to enact “trigger laws”. Trigger laws would allow parent groups to overrule local school boards, fire professional teachers without regard to seniority and convert local public schools into privatized schools using public funding. Of course, “Students First” and those that support them will be working hard to organize grassroots of gullible and irate parents to pull the triggers.
“Students First” is already sending out email blasts and private invitations for free private screenings of the movie over the next six months in 35 states to promote “trigger laws” and to end the teacher seniority system for determining which teachers get laid off from education budget cuts. Attendees of both the Republican National Convention in Tampa, and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte got a sneak preview of the movie.
According to the “Students First” web site the theme of the movie is about a single working “mom whom has a child who wasn’t being well served in school…he wasn’t thriving or happy, and we needed something better for him”. So what is the movie’s answer? The leading characters, one the mom (Maggie Gullenhall) and the other a teacher (Viola Davis) “push for a kind of parent trigger law that allows moms and dads to band together and transform dysfunctional schools into new charter schools”…schools that “Students First” is pushing, such as the network of BASIS Schools, Inc.
The tax-exempt BASIS Schools Inc. then hires Basis Education Group of Arizona as consultants to run their chain of “non-profit” charter schools. The co-founders of BASIS are billionaires Craig Barrett the former CEO of Intel and Michael Block. There is a maze of linkages between “Students First”, various tax-exempt organizations, consulting firms, private educators and politicians. Eventually the money finds its way into highly paid promoters, executives and investors hands. Why does the IRS let them get away with using tax-exempt, so called “non-profit” organization to promote for-profit privatized education?
The money trail also leads to helpful politicians in both the Democrat Party and the Republican Party. Both President Obama’s campaign and Candidate Romney’s campaign have received large donation from promoters of privatized education. The ultimate potential prize is billions of dollars in potential annual revenues to private educators and investors. It is not too cynical to imagine that so many wealthy investors, private sector educators and hard driving promoters would be working so hard to “reform” public education if they did not expect a big payoff sooner or later.
Michelle A. Rhee is one of those hard driving promoters. She is the CEO of “Students First”. She boasts of an 18 year career in education “as a third grade teacher in Baltimore…hosting hundreds of community meetings…and reforming the Washington, D.C. public schools”, according to her website. Her husband that she has such a hard time getting a movie date with is Kevin Johnson, the current mayor of Sacramento, California and former professional NBA basketball player.
Ms. Rhee started her education career as a member teacher of “Teach for America” in Baltimore City for three years. “Teach for America” is a teacher recruiting and placement organization that hires mostly low-paid novice teachers. Many of their recruits have little experience or training as educators.
In 1997 Ms. Rhee founded “The New Teacher Project”. It was also set up as a tax-exempt organization and used a similar business model as “Teach for America”. Her low-paid recruits are mostly trained to teach-to-the-test that is used for evaluating students, teachers and schools in compliance with federal funding requirements of President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” (NCLBH) and the “Race to The Top” (R2T) program started under President Obama.
How students perform on these standardized tests is critical in evaluating, paying and funding teachers and schools. It is called “high-stakes testing” (HST) and schools and teachers where students do well on HST are rewarded and schools and teachers where students do poorly are punished. Schools with consistently low test scores are declared “Persistently Low Achieving” (PLA) schools which can result in teacher firings, the school being put on probation until the students’ HST scores improve to acceptable levels. PLA schools can also be closed resulting in teacher firings and a reorganization of the entire school staff. Critics charge that HST standardized tests are not fair to judge all teachers and all schools because they do not differentiate between the wealthiest of neighborhoods where children often come from advantaged backgrounds or the poorest of neighborhoods where children live in dysfunctional ghettos.
Ms. Rhee who advocates high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers and schools was appointed the head of Washington, DC public schools from 2007 to 2010, even though she had never before even been a principal of a school, let alone run an entire school system. Immediately after Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was elected he appointed Ms. Rhee to head the D.C. school system on the political recommendation of Joel Klein. Joel Klein is a former head of the New York City public schools who now works for Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation. Ms. Rhee was fired as soon as Mayor Fenty failed to get re-elected.
While Ms. Rhee brags about tremendous success in the Washington, DC school system there have been charges of widespread cheating on standardized tests by erasing and changing test answers by graders. Ms. Rhee was accused of being heavy handed in firing 266 experienced Washington DC teachers for low evaluations based on students’ poor performance on standardized tests. PLA schools were closed and re-opened as private charter schools. The fired teachers were replaced with low-paid teachers such as those provided by “Teach for America”. Ms. Rhee admits saying that she fired most of the teachers because they had hit or sexually abused students. When confronted for proof, Ms. Rhee backtracked and said she spoke too soon as she could only name six teacher laid off for using corporal punishment and two teachers fired for being habitually late.
Ms. Rhee herself bragged in a videotaped speech that in her earlier days of teaching elementary school in Baltimore she taped her students mouths shut so they would be quiet on their way to lunch break. Ms. Rhee has stirred up a lot of animosity among The American Federation of Teachers whom have devoted a website called “Rhee First” where many of these critical accusations against her are documented.
The other side of the story can be found on the “Students First” website. It is filled with “member parents” stories that relate their success of turning failing schools into charter schools that excel. For instance Mary Siddal “shares her real life journey through failing schools and parent empowerment… and how the movie “Won’t Back Down” can inspire teachers and parents everywhere.”
“Students First” uses all the right-sounding buzz words in their “Mission Statement” to make it sound like they know how to fix public education: “…our mission, we’re working with parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens across the country to… give novice teachers the training they need…remove ineffective teachers…Tax dollars should not [go to a] bureaucracy that only serve special interests. …we’ll work to empower parents and help families get more involved in their child’s education.”
According to “Students First” own web site they have a state-by-state campaign of identifying the most vulnerable states that have to lay off teachers because of budget cuts. “Students First” is lobbying to eliminate the seniority system in those states. “Students First” argues that teachers should be kept or fired according to performance as determined by students standardized test scores. Teachers’ unions and opponents of HST complain that this is just a smoke screen to fire older; more experienced and higher paid teachers.
The “Student First” website has a map of the US that identifies “High Risk” states that require the seniority based layoffs of last-hired, first-fired; those states are colored red. The green colored states have become “safe” and eliminated the seniority system which “Students First” takes credit for in its so-called “Save Great Teachers” campaign. The states that have “Gone Green” include Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah. The states that have not gone green yet can expect a lot of “Students First” free screenings of “Won’t Back Down” and intensive lobbying of politicians in the coming months.
It the months and years ahead there are going to be some hard fought battles between those that want to improve public education and those that think it is no longer worth saving. Saving public education is going to be an uphill battle. With both Democrats and Republicans on the side of “reform” and with all the money to be made by private investors, private equity funds and hedge funds from a school voucher program and privatized education it is going to be hard to hold back the tide. Especially so with the weakened ability of teachers’ unions and supporters of public schools to fight back against the angry and resentful mood of the public towards government employees whom they now see as overpaid, incompetent and feeling too entitled. If Mitt Romney becomes president it will be even harder as he is fully committed to a school voucher system.
Americans now have to decide what they want K-12 education to look like in the future. If the American public does not make that decision now, then it will soon be decided for them by the politicians, the private sector and investors in private schools. Lower education grades K-12 as it now stands is greatly divided in quality between expensive private education, faith-based private schools, charter schools, home school programs and public education. Public schools face great challenges as they try to provide education for children in all levels of the economic and social ladder from the wealthiest of neighborhood to the poorest of ghettos.
The failings of public education are complex. Teachers unions and the bureaucracy are not blameless. The point and question is how would a school voucher system, charter schools and private schools work on a wide scale? Organizations such as “Students First” can point to many charter schools that have excelled. Critics complain that the charter schools have entrance exams and requirements that just skim off higher achieving students that result in less funding for public schools that are then left with lower achieving, special need children and children with discipline problems.
These critics claim that vouchers would result in a socio-economic re-segregation of schools with the remaining public schools being a dumping ground for the poor and problem children. These issues and other questions need to be answered; such as would vouchers be provided on an income needs basis or could the wealthy use taxpayer provided vouchers to subsidize their children’s fancy private schools too? And what about faith-based schools; is it Constitution for publicly funded vouchers to be used to subsidize religious schools? Then there is the whole question of how home school programs and co-op schools, many of which already receive government subsidies, would be affected.
America is a lot different now than when providing a good K-12 public education for most children was simply considered a civic duty of good government. A lot of questions need to be asked, and answers provided before the American people can make an intelligent choice about the future of public education. This is not a simple issue that should be decided on political slogans, financial gain for the private sector, personal biases, emotions and hype from the movie “Won’t Back Down”.
David William is a political, social and economic commentator.
 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2010/09/05/