[Marxism] Hollywood joins war against teacher's unions
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Tue Feb 21 07:50:21 MST 2012
NY Times February 20, 2012
In Reality and Film, a Battle for Schools
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES — On Tuesday officials in Adelanto, a California desert
town, are set to consider whether parents there can be the first to take
over a failing public school under a new state law that is being closely
watched around the country.
The Hollywood version? It’s already a done deal.
In a rare mix of hot policy debate and old-fashioned screen drama, 20th
Century Fox is preparing a September release for “Won’t Back Down.” The
film heads smack into the controversies around so-called parent trigger
laws that in California and a handful of other states allow parents to
dump bad teachers and overrule administrators in bottom-ranked schools.
Viola Davis, an Oscar nominee as best actress for “The Help,” plays a
teacher who risks career and friendships to join the revolt. Maggie
Gyllenhaal is the single mother who sells cars, tends bar and rouses
parents to take charge of their grade school.
Holly Hunter, the union rep, loves her teachers and so she fights the
takeover with a ploy you might expect from a corporate villain.
“When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” Ms. Hunter mutters. Her role
recalls the title character in the pro-union film “Norma Rae,” as she
navigates the ferocious politics of education reform’s nuclear option,
the trigger laws.
These measures have backers on both ends of the political spectrum and
on both economic extremes: from Bill Gates, whose charitable foundation
supports the takeover movement, to the poor or working-class parents of
Adelanto. But they have also pushed unions and school administrators
into an unwelcome role as opponents of change.
Now the trigger laws have connected with a movie culture whose new
preoccupation with timeliness lends urgency and risk to reality-inspired
dramas that in the past were usually set safely in the past.
“Won’t Back Down” describes itself as being “inspired by actual events.”
But it portrays a fiercely contested school takeover — set in
Pittsburgh, though Pennsylvania does not have a trigger law — before any
has occurred in real life.
Texas, Ohio and Connecticut are among states that now permit a trigger
process. But a take-over in Adelanto would be the country’s first,
according to Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution,
which promotes the tactic with backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates
“I thought it was a prank,” Mr. Austin said of his surprise at a call in
which he learned that Walden Media, backed by the conservative-leaning
billionaire Philip Anschutz, was shooting a drama in which teachers and
parents aim to take charge.
For Walden, the film is a second shot at an education-reform movie. With
Mr. Gates and the progressive-minded Participant Media, Walden was among
the financial backers of the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ”
That film, released in 2010, advocated, as potential solutions to an
education crisis, charter schools, teacher testing and an end to tenure.
But it took in only about $6.4 million at the box office and received no
Oscar nominations after union officials and others strongly attacked it.
“We realized the inherent limitations of the documentary format,” said
Michael Bostick, chief executive of Walden. Now, he said, the idea is to
reach a larger audience through the power of actors playing complicated
characters who struggle with issues that happen to be, in his phrase,
“ripped from the headlines.”
“Detachment,” by Tony Kaye, another film set in troubled schools, is set
to open in New York and Los Angeles next month.
Daniel Barnz, the director and a writer of “Won’t Back Down,” said he
had wanted to recreate the thrill of past action-inspiring social dramas
without being snared in partisan debate. Working from an earlier script
by Brin Hill, he introduced the parent-trigger mechanism as a plot
device but insisted that the character played by Ms. Davis be a teacher,
thus bringing teachers into the reform process.
“I am extremely pro-union,” Mr. Barnz said. In the movie’s fictionalized
law for Pennsylvania (which, because it was shot there, helped subsidize
the film’s $20 million budget with a tax credit), a school takeover
could occur only if a majority of both parents and teachers were to
demand it, rather than parents alone, as in California.
Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education
Association, a teacher’s union, said his organization, though wary of
existing trigger laws, would look more kindly on a system that included
teacher input. But he cautioned against another premise of “Won’t Back
Down”: that union contracts have sometimes impeded reform.
“Collective bargaining is not the problem,” Mr. Keever said in an
interview on Friday. “It produces protections not only for the teachers,
but for the students.”
Mark Johnson, who produced “Won’t Back Down,” said the film’s humanity
might outshine its politics. “With issues movies, some of those you
remember best you remember for the people, not the issues,” he offered.
For Ms. Davis, certainly, the appeal is personal. In what she called her
first real leading role — in “The Help,” she fronted an ensemble — Ms.
Davis described her character as wrestling personal demons while
fighting for something that does not involve race. “I’ve never had
that,” she said.
As for education, she added, experience persuades her of the need for
teachers and mentors who can operate outside the system. “I’m sorry, I
just know if you don’t have a strong advocate for a child, they’re not
going to make it,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Gyllenhaal framed her character, a frustrated parent, as “someone
who doesn’t think of herself as an activist at all,” but “gets
radicalized by the situation she’s in.” She is much like Meryl Streep in
the activist thriller “Silkwood,” Ms. Gyllenhaal noted, or the flawed,
sexy legal crusader played by Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich.”
Events in that film occurred in Hinkley, Calif., which, coincidentally,
is near Adelanto, the town where a trigger petition will be reviewed on
Tuesday at a school board meeting that could match a big moment in
“Won’t Back Down.”
“Next Tuesday night’s board meeting will see a show of force” by both
parents in favor of the takeover and the California Teachers
Association, whose Adelanto chapter has helped those opposing it, said
an internal memo circulated among Parent Revolution executives last
week. The memo predicted confrontations between supporters and opponents
and said that “a range of provocative techniques” would frame the session.
If teachers were included in a trigger attempt — as happens in “Won’t
Back Down” — the California Teachers Association, which has avoided
taking a formal position, would look more favorably on the action,
suggested Frank Wells, a union spokesman.
Still, he voiced surprise that the parent trigger laws should become a
subject for Hollywood at all. “I can’t wait for ‘Vouchers 3-D: The
Movie,’ ” he said.
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