When pushed to provide examples of their ideological betes noires, many conservatives are likely to point to two groups as prominent examples of liberalism at its worst: the entertainment media, as embodied by Hollywood, and the teachers’ unions.
Such people would probably be extremely shocked to learn that behind the scenes, these two loyal clients of the Left are now preparing for an intra-ideological battle of epic proportions. And the opening shot will be fired tomorrow, in the form of the new film “Won’t Back Down,” a scrappy little picture inspired by true events that portrays teachers’ union leaders as being almost as morally depraved as workhouse owners in a Charles Dickens novel.
The film is produced by Walden Media, the same film studio with strong ties to the Narnia trilogy, as well as to the equally scathing anti-teachers’ union documentary “Waiting for Superman.” Liberals have criticized Walden in the past for being a vehicle for right-wing interests, a charge which Walden’s co-founder, Michael Flaherty, scrupulously denies.
“Our number one purpose is to entertain,” Flaherty told TheBlaze. “But we’re more than happy to invite people to do a simple Google search to see the injustices our parents face every day.”
And whatever Walden’s other projects might be, in this case, that “simple Google search” appears to have persuaded the very last people one would expect to act as supporters of alleged conservative messaging. The film stars no less than three Academy Award Nominees – Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter – and is directed by Daniel Barnz, by all accounts a garden variety liberal Democrat who himself comes from a family of educators. When asked about how a supposedly conservative film could attract such a range of liberal talent, Flaherty explains that the ideology was of no consequence.
“There was really never any question. The second that people saw the script, they didn’t even see it through that filter, they just saw it as another great Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich type picture,” Flaherty said. “I think the other thing that these actors really appreciated about this is that too often there’s no sense of urgency when it comes to our kids’ education.”
Thus the film’s approach, characterized by Flaherty as a “ticking time clock,” is defined by a race against time and sociology by the film’s main characters – played by Davis and Gyllenhaal – who are trying to ensure that their kids get the right education before they fall so far behind that prison is a more realistic prospect than college.
“I think the actors were able to do what a lot of people in the establishment weren’t able to do,” Flaherty explained, “which is to ask the simple question – what if that was my child?”
“What if,” indeed. It’s one of the few political questions left that has groups on both sides of the aisle calling for an answer. In fact, “Won’t Back Down” itself appears to be popular across party lines – so much so that it was screened at both the Republican National Convention in Tampa and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. This latter showing was apparently spearheaded by some of the most loyally Democratic mayors in the country, and was given sanction by the highest levels of the party, as the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward reported at the start of this month:
But it is hard to paint the school reform movement as a right-wing conspiracy. Support for taking on teachers’ unions is growing in Democratic and liberal circles. The best example of this might be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former organizer with United Teachers Los Angeles who is in favor of greater school choice and teacher accountability.
Villaraigosa is the current president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and in June, with the support of several high-profile Democratic mayors, that group included support for “parent trigger” legislation in its platform. Such laws allow parents to take over a failing school if they meet certain requirements, usually having to do with acquiring a sufficient number of signatures from other parents. In a majority-Latino community outside Los Angeles, a fight between the school board and parents, who are trying to use California’s parent trigger legislation to overhaul their local public school, has become a national story.
Villaraigosa also happens to be chairman of the Democratic convention this year. After “Won’t Back Down” is shown Monday in Charlotte, he is scheduled to speak on a panel at the theater, joined by Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, and Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson. Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker will also speak at the event.
Obviously, it’s not just the supposedly malevolent Right that’s giving this film its most potent support. Nevertheless, many committed liberals, to say nothing of the teachers’ unions themselves, are attacking the film reflexively as an anti-union piece of propaganda. To that end, the film has attracted a brutal rhetorical broadside from left-leaning journalists, and teachers’ union leaders like Randi Weingarten. This recent, grumpy response from Alexander Zaitchik at Salon sums up the general reaction of the pro-union Left:
“Won’t Back Down” is, as even teachers’ union leader Randi Weingarten admits, an emotionally charged and well-crafted piece of propaganda. For neophytes to the debate — and Walden executive Chip Flahertyhas described these people as the film’s target — “Won’t Back Down” will send warm “Stand and Deliver”-meets-”Free Willy”-style fuzzies fluttering around the otherwise cold phrase “school choice.” The company hopes the film’s emotional wallop will linger long enough to drive downloads of the film’s activist tool kitand enlist new foot soldiers in the education reform movement. But the thing is, “Won’t Back Down” is no more useful in understanding the real politics of that movement than Walden Media’s adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web” prepares audiences for careers in chicken farming. But that’s not the point — Walden is aiming for the heart, not the head.
Teachers’ union President Randi Weingarten is even more emphatic in dismissing the fim’s message, claiming it draws on “union stereotypes” and fabricates its indictment out of distortions and lies:
I don’t recognize the teachers portrayed in this movie, and I don’t recognize that union. The teachers I know are women and men who have devoted their lives to helping children learn and grow and reach their full potential. These women and men come in early, stay late to mentor and tutor students, coach sports teams, advise the student council, work through lunch breaks, purchase school supplies using money from their own pockets, and spend their evenings planning lessons, grading papers and talking to parents. Yet their efforts, and the care with which they approach their work, are nowhere to be seen in this film.
This movie could have been a great opportunity to bring parents and teachers together to launch a national movement focused on real teacher and parent collaboration to help all children. Instead, this fictional portrayal, which makes the unions the culprit for all of the problems facing our schools, is divisive and demoralizes millions of great teachers. America’s teachers are already being asked to do more with less — budgets have been slashed, 300,000 teachers have been laid off since the start of the recession, class sizes have spiked, and more and more children are falling into poverty. And teachers are being demonized, marginalized and shamed by politicians and elites who want to undermine and dismiss their reform efforts.
In other words, “it’s not our fault” and the film’s supposedly “true events” aren’t actually true.
So are they? In looking to answer this question, TheBlaze tracked down the people responsible for leading the parent revolt that inspired the film.
First, some quick background. In trying to save their fictional elementary school, the protagonists of “Won’t Back Down” utilize a law described as a “fail safe law,” which enables parents and teachers to take over the school, fire the existing principal, and convert it into a charter, if necessary. In actuality, laws of this kind are called “Parent Trigger” laws, and they exist on the books in only a few states.
However, there is only one place where parent groups have dug in and fought the battle over these laws through several layers of bureaucracy and the court system – Adelanto, California, at a school called Desert Trails Elementary. And contrary to what the film’s detractors argue about the forces behind “Parent Trigger” laws, the people leading that particular fight were not right-wingers by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the parents are trained community organizers, who were trained by an organization called “Parent Revolution” – a group headed by committed Democrat Ben Austin, which teaches the principles and tactics of Saul Alinsky to parents.
We reached out to Ben Austin to find out how he justified this apparent cognitive dissonance.
“I worked at the Clinton White House and I’m an ardent Obama supporter, but I have been shocked again and again at the lengths that some teachers’ unions will go to in order to defend the status quo,” Austin told TheBlaze. “I am a big government liberal. I’m just for big government that is accountable to the people that it’s supposedly trying to serve. If Democrats and progressives are going to ask the public to let them increase their taxes in order to pay for government services, those services need to be valuable.”
So was “Won’t Back Down’s” depiction of neglect and malevolence on the part of teachers, and intransigence toward reform on the part of teachers’ unions a right-wing fantasy? Not if Austin himself is to be believed.
“I actually agree that it doesn’t portray the reality of parent trigger campaigns accurately,” Austin told TheBlaze. “The reality is much, much worse.”
How so? Austin explains the process:
The parents organized, turned in the petitions representing 70 percent of the kids in their school, and the teachers’ union sent in paid operatives to intimidate and lie to the parents at Desert Trails. They told parents that the school would be shut down if they turned it into a charter school. They told the parents that Special Ed kids wouldn’t be allowed to go. They would have one teacher stand in front of a car and wouldn’t get out of the way, and two teachers on either side of the window who wouldn’t get out of the way until the parent rolled the window down and signed a recision petition. We caught the teachers’ union forging documents. They turned in supposed recision petitions, but some of those documents, they turned in duplicates. They were just Xerox copies of each other. There were boxes you were supposed to check on the recision petition that were stock accusations against Parent Revolution. On one copy of the petition, all the boxes were checked, and on the other, all the boxes were checked. Someone must’ve xeroxed the petitions.
In other words, the film leaves out raw physical intimidation and forgery in its depiction of teachers’ union tactics. And they will defend anyone, according to Austin.
“Less than a year ago, we had a scandal where teachers were caught molesting students in Los Angeles. One teacher was caught feeding semen to his students. And because it’s so difficult to fire low-performing teachers, even after he had gotten caught feeding semen to his own children, the superintendent couldn’t fire him and had to pay him $40,000 to resign with full benefits,” Austin said. “The teachers’ union killed a bill to stop teachers from molesting their students.”
So that’s the film’s depiction of teachers’ union tactics validated. What about the behavior of teachers themselves? Doreen Diaz, one of the parents actually involved in the fight over Desert Trails, told TheBlaze what she and other parents had witnessed. She depicted a school where teachers failed to maintain any level of control over the classroom, more akin to Lord of the Flies than a school.
“From my personal experience, I walked into a classroom that my daughter was going for intervention in, and I watched a child come out of a cabinet. The children were not attentive to the teacher. They were throwing sharpies,” Diaz told theBlaze.”My daughter was in special ed, she started off there first grade and come third grade, she started crying because she didn’t want to go to school anymore. And I found out that they were fighting all the time, and they had first and fifth graders all in the same classroom, and she was intimidated and harassed, and so she didn’t want to go to school anymore. I started to look into it and I know the teacher was overwhelmed. She had over 20 students in the class, from a mix of classes, and she wasn’t getting the support she needed, but by the time she got to 3rd grade, I started to demand that my daughter get taken out of the classroom…She just never got caught up.”
Diaz’s daughter got the better of it. One child reportedly attempted suicide because of bullying. And what apparently stung Diaz the most was that the teachers had preemptively given up on the children.
“I’ve had teachers say that because of the socio-economic area we live in, that the children cannot learn,” Diaz said. “Because we’re a poor area, there are a lot of foster children that get put in and out of the school. One of [the teachers] said that she’ll teach to the kids that get it, and too bad for the ones who don’t.”
In fact, according to both Austin and Diaz, Desert Trails wasn’t being treated by the broader California education system as a school to begin with, but rather as a dumping ground for bad teachers – teachers who would have otherwise been put in a “rubber room,” or a room where teachers who are deemed too incompetent to teach are kept in order to avoid violating their union contracts.
And theirs isn’t the only story of teacher abuse. The New York Times recently reported on a terrifying phenomenon whereby teachers will lock children in “seclusion rooms” – the equivalent of solitary confinement – as punishment. This outstrips even the most outsized abuse depicted in “Won’t Back Down.”
So are the teachers’ union complaints about the movie valid? Ben Austin sums the answer to that question up.
“The teachers’ unions rhetorical strategy on this is the very cynical conclusion that the facts aren’t on their side, so they’re just going to make up new facts,” Austin told TheBlaze. “They are rhetorically untethered to Planet Earth.”