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Rita Solnet, Change a School Change a Neighborhood


By Rita Solnet
"Change a school, change the neighborhood.”
That's a line from the controversial, star-studded movie, "Won't Back Down," scheduled to be released on September 28th.
I attended a Washington D.C. screening of this compelling movie over the weekend.  I carried a small notebook and a long list of preconceived notions about what I expected to see in this film. I walked out with a long list of of questions as to what I didn't see portrayed in the film.
The synopsis describes this movie as: "Two determined mothers,  one a teacher,  who look to transform their children's failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched bureaucracy, they risk everything to make a difference in the education of their children.”
However, the messages in this feel-good, underdog-winning movie go far beyond what this summary depicts.

Within the first few minutes, projected on the screen in large letters are the words, "Inspired By True Events.”   That conveys the message that parents and teachers took over and ran a school somewhere in our nation.  That never happened.  I suppose that sells better than opening the film with, "This is Fictitious.”
Outstanding performances by star-studded and new young actors will put this movie on the Academy Award nomination list, I'm sure. The actors did a superb job of drawing you into the movie.
 I cried several times despite knowing that this movie was funded by charter school privatizers seeking fistfuls of dwindling education dollars.
I cried despite knowing that the story behind the “failing” school was not told.
I knew that the divisive and unsuccessful “parent trigger” laws that have been passed in California and a few other states — and are being considered in about 20 others — was intentionally disguised in this movie as a fictitious law cleverly named "Fail-Safe," yet I still wept.
 I wanted to jump into the movie and help these moms win.  The audience audibly cheered for the underdogs every step of the way. Who wouldn't?  Moms in the face of adversity knocking down barriers to help their kids chances for a better future.  Of course, I'm on their side. 
Unfortunately, this film depicts a story that is more about good vs. evil than about the truth behind public schools today and the movement to privatize them. Portraying a complex public education system as irretrievably broken — and blaming abusive, older teachers and their rabidly protective unions is much easier than illustrating the complicated truth, I suppose. 
Realities that make true school reform so hard were left out of the film.
Despite many classroom scenes, you never once saw a child even taking a test — and we know that standardized tests take many weeks out of instructional time, with even more for test prep.
You never heard why the school was labeled "failing" or what the criteria was for receiving a “failing” grade. Instead you heard teachers in their unusually large break room complain about other teachers who had "the highest salary with the lowest performance.”   You heard comments like, "We don't coach teachers here; we protect teachers.”
As a parent volunteer in public schools for 16 years, it startled me not to see anyone working on the problems together in this movie. I didn't see parents talking to teachers to help improve the school. No sign or talk of School Advisory Councils, of PTAs, not even parent friends talking to each other over coffee about how they could organize to speak to the principal or district or board to improve the school. Not all principals are underhanded and despicable as they are in this movie.
There were no scenes or discussions of parents at school board meetings to formally complain and formally request solutions be put in place. When you organize and speak as a group, you can be heard.
Why was this mom and teacher's first step to conduct a takeover?   Because it is fiction.
Yet I worry about the dynamic a movie like this creates.
Will this movie launch open season by shrewd for-profit charter operators — including some with abysmal academic records — to stir a commotion and skip directly to the takeover step?
Disgruntled parents and guardians will see this film that is supposedly "Inspired by True Events”  (but those events are never mentioned or referenced) and think it's appropriate to storm the school board to demand a school takeover.
But before our nation agrees that it is a neat idea for parents to demand takeovers, everybody has to know the real issues that caused the problems. People can choose to blame teachers unions, but they should remember that the problems people are trying to fix in public education are the same in states with unions and without unions.
Are there teachers who don’t belong in a classroom? Yes. They should be removed. But the difficulties that schools face are long and deep, and they start with the impoverished conditions in which many children live. That doesn’t mean kids can’t learn. It does mean that ignoring their issues will make it much harder for even a great teacher to reach them.
There is no question that  children who need help should get it now. But the answer isn’t the parent trigger. In fact, in Florida earlier this year, an effort to pass a parent trigger law died afternot a single major parent organization — including the PTA — endorsed it for fear it would lead to the takeover of public schools by for-profit charter management companies.
Of course we need parent involvement in improving schools. But that isn’t enough.
We need significant change at the state and federal level. The failed No Child Left Behind bill, which has been sucking the life force out of our public education system, must end once and for all, and many of the policies states adopted to win federal dollars in President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative must be reversed.
And parents, grandparents, retired educators, and local citizens can partner with schools to improve the quality of public education. That creates good will among citizens vs. divisiveness, turmoil, and uncertainty inherent in a parent takeover.
"Change a school; change a neighborhood.”   I'd modify that to  'Change school reform rules; change a neighborhood.”

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