[Marxism] Hollywood joins war against teacher's unions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 21 07:50:21 MST 2012

NY Times February 20, 2012
In Reality and Film, a Battle for Schools

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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list